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Bret Harte High to cut staff?

Bret Harte Union High School District is considering staff cuts this year because of declining enrollment and steep losses in funding from local property taxes.

Superintendent Mike Chimente recommended at a Jan. 14 board meeting that the district plan to eliminate the equivalent of about six and a half teaching positions, two administrator jobs, three support staff and a part-time teaching position, in addition to other possible reductions in workdays.


Unlike most other Mother Lode districts, Bret Harte gets the majority of its funding from the taxes, putting it at the mercy of the local real estate market. Last year, it avoided layoffs by spending reserve funds. The reserves now risk being depleted.

“We have been spending down our reserves to ride out this recession and downturn in our local and state economy,” Chimente said. “That has lasted longer than our reserve dollars.”

Shrinking enrollment is another factor that underscores the need for cuts, he said. The district has been overstaffed for several years and can no longer afford it.

Chimente also recommended that he continue to serve as both superintendent and principal for the district, which he estimated as a savings of more than $140,000 a year. The 2012-13 school year is his second working both positions.

The proposed teacher cuts may not come in the form of six lost teaching jobs. Rather, hours could be cut across multiple positions to achieve the savings.

All reductions require approval from the Bret Harte High Board of Education, and its decision is a few months down the road. The deadline for issuing preliminary layoff notices for teachers and administrators is March 15, with a later cutoff for support staff. 

Even then, the board could decide not to finalize the layoff notices if it learns about improvement in and projected tax revenues.

Chimente’s Jan. 14 recommendation for the 2013-14 fiscal year assumed property tax revenues will fall by 2 percent, an improvement over the originally projected 10 percent decline. Each 1-percent decline still means a loss of approximately $85,000 for Bret Harte. 

The district has lost about $2.8 million a year in property tax funding since the recession started. State-level funding cuts entailed even more losses over the past few years and amounted to a $548,000 loss this year. 

In a nasty surprise, Bret Harte was one of two school districts in California to have part of its special education funding taken back by the state, said district Chief Business Official Gloria Carrillo. 

Chimente said declining enrollment has underscored the need for downsizing. In line with a regional trend, the district’s total enrollment went from about 1,000 in 2004-05 to 758 today.

“We really have never taken the measures to reduce staff commensurate to the level of students that we’re teaching,” Chimente said. “We need to do a one-time adjustment.”

He added that class sizes will still remain below the statewide average.

The number of days that teachers work each year has already been reduced and could be reduced more next year, though staff unions would need to sign off on the agreement. Bret Harte has managed to preserve its 180-day school year by cutting only staff development days so far.

Where most local districts get the lion’s share of their funding from the state, Bret Harte qualifies as a “community funded” district. That means its local property tax revenues equal or exceed what it would get from the state government.

Chimente said the arrangement is normally an advantage for Bret Harte. However, community funded districts will miss out on the overdue payments that Gov. Jerry Brown plans on making to other districts as part of his proposed state budget.

For Bret Harte to get the same benefit, California would have to “backfill” its lost revenue from local property taxes.

The district was spared a midyear budget cut from the passage of Proposition 30, a temporary sales and income tax increase. But it is unclear whether the measure will have other positive effects on community-funded districts, Chimente said.

In brighter news, Bret Harte’s new science and math building — funded with money from an $18 million bond measure— is almost finished and will be ready for classes in the fall. 

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