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AUSD Faces Fall Reopening, Possible Financial Reduction Plan

An enthusiastic group of fourth and fifth graders offer their suggestions during a workshop in February, 2020. Photo by Helen Arase

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra Unified School District Board of Education heard presentations Tuesday night from several departments on the plans for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which begins in July, as well as the best projections on the budget.

Virtually every presentation was prefaced with the expectation of change between now and the start of school on Aug. 12 due to the district waiting on final guidelines from L.A. County health officials and state education officials, including the final educational budget details from Sacramento.

Even though it seems the district is making decisions without enough information, it’s trying to prepare for all situations for when the state and county finally do give direction.

The budget presentation made at Tuesday’s meeting was made from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May revision, in anticipation of a 10% reduction for education across the board, which would greatly hurt K-12 public schools. In recent days, the governor and the legislature have reached a compromise on the budget that avoids some the projected deep cuts in education.

AUSD is getting “trickles of information” from the state, Superintendent Denise Jaramillo said before the budget presentation, but they do not have the final information of how the newest state budget will impact the district. When those numbers are clear they will revise the budget.

Health and Safety plans for the reopening of schools are based on a blend of what the district anticipates being in the state and county Standard of Care guidelines. The district had thought the guidelines would be available by now, but they are not expected until next week or the week after.  Each week that the L.A. County Department of Public Health delays in releasing the standard is one less week to prepare for the first day of class.

Financial issues

Assistant superintendent of business services Josephine Quach gave the budget presentation. It not only showed the current 2019-2020 school year and the 2020-2021 projected budget, but also the next two fiscal years into 2022-2023.

Each year is more perilous than the last.

The highlights from the budget are that the revenue projections for the next three years are going down, with $163 million, $157.7 million and $156 million, respectively. The ending balances will have spent the “economic uncertainty” budget – the district’s version of a nest egg – and be $21 million into the negative by 2022-2023.

At the moment, the district has a “qualified” budget, meaning it may not meet its financial obligations for the current fiscal year or two subsequent years. When the district is able to make changes after receiving the state’s final budget, AUSD will make a determination if a “full reduction plan” is needed.

The county’s Office of Education will require a reduction plan if AUSD cannot meet the financial obligations.

Quach ended her presentations with a call-to-action, saying budget cuts are profound and are “affecting those at the beginning of their lives. We have to continue to fight.”

The district is going to approach the budget issue conservatively, and they anticipate cash-flow issues and the need for alternative solutions, Jaramillo added. The cash-flow issues are a direct result of the state’s delaying of scheduled payments to the district.

“I’m very hopeful on what we are going to see in the next few days, and I applaud those who are trying to solve this,” Jaramillo said, but in the same breath cautioned that the projections will be felt over the next few years.

Jaramillo cautioned that AUSD can’t depend on federal money, and there’s no guarantee the district will get state funding on their regular schedule. “California’s economy will get better,” she said, but “you can’t solve the economy by devastating schools.”

At the moment, the state owes the district $7.2 million for this fiscal year’s June and July, according to the district’s budget presentation.

Upon turning to the reopening plans, Jaramillo stressed the physical reopening of schools and the budgetary issues are directly related.

What does “reopening” mean?

The district has about seven weeks to plan, modify and implement infection control measures, lesson plans and services or in-person education.

Even tasks that might seem simple enough, like getting kids on buses to school, now becomes a maze of logistics. Timing schedules, health guidelines and procuring equipment all has to be worked out in the next few weeks so the roughly 1,200 to 1,300 general and special education students can safely get to school in the fall on the AUSD buses.

A large-sized bus seats about 56 students with two in each seat. Going forward, the district can only transport half of that number, due to expected safe distancing guidelines. Assistant superintendent of student and employee welfare Pat Mahony said if staff need be present for temperature or health checks that will further decrease the capacity of each bus.

AUSD transportation director Nico Richardson said in an email the district was transporting 800 to 850 general education students and will have to make major modifications to students’ schedules to accommodate the physical distancing orders in its school busing protocols.

Drivers will also get infection control training and follow other rules like enforcing one-way traffic when loading and unloading the buses.

“We just don’t have the drivers or equipment to transport everyone with the current schedules,” Richardson wrote.

The transportation department is configuring more routes to add to the schedule for the 410 special education students they pick-up. Pre-pandemic, AUSD could transport 12 to 14 students per bus. Now, they can only sit four to eight per bus.

Richardson said, “I have always said that transportation has never had a dull moment, but this has taken us to a different level. Wish us luck!”

As far as the health and safety of students while in AUSD’s care, Mahony said the district thought they would get LACDPH guidance on Monday. She said they will be similar or stronger than California’s Standard of Care but will have to follow the county’s rulings.

She reminded those listening that it’s possible the county will not close a school if a COVID-19 case is diagnosed, however, LACDPH will ask questions and monitor.

So far, they have worked out that everyone must wear a face covering, the district will have to issue personal protective equipment to students and staff and implement stringent hygiene procedures.

However, there are some instances that masks may not work – some special education classes, eating and other exceptions – that have to be taken into consideration.

Assistant superintendent of facilities and planning development George Murray said many activities will require more physical distancing, like choir, athletics, career tech and others. It is possible classes will have to be held outdoors.

Class sizes will be significantly reduced and there will be no face-to-face desk arrangements.

“This is counter to that collaborative model we’ve been working on for years,” Murray said.

Murray told board members that they have been preparing campuses, with modifications falling into two categories: engineering and administrative. The engineering solutions are physical – designing and building or modifying existing facilities. Administrative solutions are procedural – changing schedules or reconfiguring desks.

The department is tracking both, and Murray said that the average district – like Alhambra Unified – will spend over $1 million on these modifications.

Though they are pressing forward with the physical modifications, AUSD realizes some parents may not want their children back in school.

To date, subcommittees have been weighing in on the structuring of programs, technology and welfare. Alhambra Unified is looking for ways to create consistencies and learn from the struggles of the emergency distance learning this spring.

Some of the input was a survey of almost 4,000 participants – 66% parents, 22% staff and 12% students. When comparing distance learning to in-person learning, 72% said it is much worse/somewhat worse, 13% said much better/somewhat better and 16% said it was about the same.

As parents became larger participants in the education of their students, the district said requests for technical training – for parents, teachers and students – was desired for virtual learning platforms.

Assistant Superintendent Janet Lees detailed two options for the fall and the district wants all AUSD parents to communicate which they prefer.

Option 1 is “in-person” instruction, which will likely be a hybrid of on-campus and online learning. Option 2 is distance learning – much more standardized across classes, face-to-face daily instruction and small-group/support than this spring’s distance learning experience. For both options school breakfast and lunch will be provided either in person or at designated pick-up locations.

With these options, however, the district and families have to be prepared to go 100% online or in-person with any changing health orders.

View the reopening presentation.

Next steps

At the end of this week, or early next week, parents can expect a letter detailing options one and two and asking them to choose a preference for their child or children – hybrid in-person or distance learning for 2020-2021.

The district plans to hold Q&A sessions with parents so they can directly respond to questions.

AUSD is finalizing lesson plans and coordinating teaching delivery technology for both options across the district. It is working to standardize teaching platforms to maximize each student’s learning opportunity and will be offering training for families and staff once the final plans are in place.

The district needs to finalize the budget and health guidelines after receiving them from state and county officials, then implement those plans.

AUSD will work with Alhambra Teacher’s Association and California State Employee’s Assn. on plans for the fall and, when appropriate, discuss impacts on collective bargaining.

Prepare and train staff, students and parents to effectively use the learning tools for the coming year.

Board member Wing Ho asked how the district can measure student learning through online platforms.

Jaramillo responded that not only will they have to look back in time to track learning progress but learning loss from the spring. Teachers have benchmarks to meet.

The district needs to provide additional supports, Lees added.

Additional savings

Assistant superintendent of human resources John Scanlan updated the board on the retirement incentive plans that were offered to classified and management employees of the district to lessen the budget deficit.

Scanlan said they plan for the filling of some of the positions, but over the next three years the retirements will save the district $410,000 from the 17 classified employees and $1.2 million from the five management employees who took the packages.

The virtual board meeting was held over Zoom, with all five board members present. The school board will next meet on Tuesday, June 30.

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