Graduate tutors still threatened by school district budget cuts
on March 22, 2019
On Wednesday, the tenuous position of school graduate tutors came no closer to resolution as the West Contra Costa Board of Education approved a second interim financial report for their budget this year.
The largest recommended cut in the budget, of about $3 million, is to the graduate tutor program, which will eliminate jobs for the majority of tutors. Graduate tutors support students who need academic help—including students who recently immigrated to the United States and students for whom English is a second language. The tutors, who vary in age and experience, all possess at least bachelor’s degrees, according to Teamsters 856 representative Veronica Diaz. They currently hold 44 positions in schools across the district, and a staff evaluation of their role said that schools dependent upon them could face a drop in student performance if the jobs are cut.
Graduate tutors appeared in force at the meeting alongside officers from the Teamsters 856, who represent unclassified (or non-teaching) employees. “We’re here, we’re devoted, we’re intelligent, we’re amazing,” said tutor Marsha Williamson. “You will never find people like us to help the children in this district ever again.”
Peter Finn, principal officer for the union, thanked the board for making difficult budgetary decisions—public school funds, he said, are especially difficult to handle because public schools are tremendously underfunded. Even so, he reminded the board to take a full perspective on what the district loses when they make cuts. “There’s numbers on that budget page, but behind those numbers there are people, there are teachers, there are grad tutors, there are services,” Finn said.
The latest interim report, which outlines financial projections for the district, is the second of two budget updates required by the California Board of Education each year. The first update was approved in December, and a new budget will be approved in June. With each report, district officials must also project their financial status ahead several years to determine if they will be financially solvent.
According to a staff report listing the proposed cuts, the graduate tutor program is the largest among many needed to make room for an $11 million deficit. The fate of school resource officers, who are police officers stationed in schools, is another contentious, currently-unresolved budgetary issue. Despite interest from boardmembers in cutting or reducing the amount the school district pays for the officers, they are paid jointly by the district and the cities within the district.
In a presentation of the report at Wednesday night’s meeting, district staff noted that the budget for this year had initially projected a balance of about $12 million, but that this projected balance dropped to $8.2 million in the first report in December, and again to $2.2 million in the second report.
The report attributed this decrease to two factors: There was a higher than expected cost, of roughly $6.5 million, in the district’s special education program, and pay for substitutes, teacher prep time, and yard supervisors had also cost $2 million more than expected. School district budgets, the report’s authors noted, aren’t static because revenues and expenditures constantly change.
Boardmember Valerie Cuevas asked the staff to help her unpack why the extra expenses had eaten into their balance. “What else aren’t we budgeting for?” she asked.
Boardmember Mister Phillips suggested that the district not pay out parcel tax funds to charter schools that don’t provide the district with financial reports showing that those funds have been used for their designated purposes. The district currently distributes roughly $1.6 million each year to charter schools from those tax funds.
“Money not spent correctly needs to be sent back to the district,” Phillips said. “If it has not been spent correctly, it needs to come back into our budgets.”
The board was split between several motions on how to proceed on the interim report. They ultimately passed an approval of the report as it was presented, with nothing added. But as the board discussed possible amendments, boardmember Consuelo Lara made an unsuccessful motion intended to approve the interim report but also cut several programs to free up $900,000—explicitly for the purpose of hiring back some grad tutors.
Board President Tom Panas questioned whether one of the motions was out of order because some of the cuts hadn’t yet been discussed by the board. But Phillips, who supported Lara’s motion, argued there was a need for urgency, especially with layoff notices having already been sent to the tutors.
After two versions of the unsuccessful version failed to garner enough votes, the board passed the interim report 3-2, with Phillips and Lara voting against.
These proposed cuts to the budget would not become official until the final budget is passed in June. In the meantime, several boardmembers intend to find money someplace in the budget that could pay for most of the tutors. Regardless, they will need to file interim reports that show a balanced budget.
Cuevas and Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis, who voted for the motion that passed, said they wanted a discussion on the graduate tutor issue agendized for a later meeting—but that discussion is not yet guaranteed.
“I want to make sure we have grad tutors,” Hernández-Jarvis said. “I want to take that action responsibly.”
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