Schools Face As Much As $4 Million Shortfall; "Absolute Disaster," Supt. Says

By Jorge Casuso

Calling new enrollment projections "an absolute disaster," school Superintendent Neil Schmidt issued a memo to the School Board Friday that reports an anticipated $3 million to $4 million in staffing and program cuts by the end of February.

The new round of projected cuts comes on the heels of a $2 million shortfall that already has resulted in drastic cutbacks in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

According to the memo obtained by The Lookout, the latest enrollment figures show a drop from the first month to the second month of the school year, reversing a long-time trend that has traditionally shown an increase in the number of students enrolled.

"Based upon these figures, staff will need to, by the end of February, recommend reductions in staffing and programs to the tune of 3 to 4 million dollars!" Schmidt wrote in the memo. "As you can imagine, this is overwhelming. Yes, it can be done, but what will be left will definitely not reflect the standards and quality programs that have characterized this district for many decades.

"We had already begun the process of obtaining input for projected program cuts that we were anticipating for next year when this year's enrollment did not materialize," the memo said. "It is obvious that our task is significantly magnified and will be much more gut wrenching than anticipated."

Cuts of this "magnitude," Schmidt wrote, will "have the potential of pitting group against group, program against program and employee against employee.... Since most of our funding is allocated to salaries and benefits, its is clear that we will be focusing on staff reductions which means that some employees will no longer have a position with the district."

The reasons for the dramatic drop between June and September are still not clear, Schmidt wrote. But he speculated that a rise in housing and living costs and an ebb in the baby boom may have contributed to the drop in enrollment. Another factor may have been the district's recent adoption of a more restrictive policy in approving permits for students who do not reside in the district.

"We turned away hundreds, if not thousands, of permit requests because we were concerned with being over enrolled, given the information available even after the first week of school," Schmidt wrote. "We are in the process of analyzing data as to who left, why and where they went. This will take a number of weeks to complete."

The board can give direction to allow more permit students next year, Schmidt suggested, but he added that while it might "help mitigate" some of the revenue shortfall, "it certainly cannot and will not address the overall lack of financial resources.""

Schmidt predicted there will be those who will look to the City Council to help, adding that "that is a political decision which will be shaped by the community voice."

The superintendent alluded to the impending cuts during a meeting with the PTA Council on Wednesday morning and predicted there would be allegations of mismanagement, according to sources who attended the meeting.

Schmidt also used the opportunity to sell the idea of a parcel tax and asked PTA members to use their networks to help raise funds for the campaign, sources said.

"Someone's got to take responsibility," said David Cole, president of Mid-City neighbors and longtime active member of the PTA, who attended the meeting. "People are so used to this that they take this type of miscalculations as an accepted business practice."