Can You Save My Job?

By Ruth E. Sternberg

Dave Francis knew the 2003-04 school year would involve some painful decisions about spending. The superintendent of the Santa Maria-Bonita schools, 80 miles north of Santa Barbara on the California coast, had seen a projected $2.7 million gap in the district's $80 million budget.

The gap was growing, and Francis realized the K-8 district probably would have to lay off teachers and reduce spending in every department to produce a balanced three-year budget.

But Francis also figured everyone would take it better if they helped decide the cuts. So he assembled an advisory committee of teachers, administrators, and parents and threw the book at them -- the budget book, that is.

School administrators across the country are in the midst of similar tasks as they design and argue for budget-balancing measures that are unpopular but necessary in times of nationwide deficit woes. And they're getting little help from cash-strapped state legislatures that face shortfalls of their own.

Hard-hit districts are adopting many nearly identical strategies, including closing buildings, trimming programs, outsourcing services, increasing fees -- and, as a last-ditch measure, laying off staff. But dealing with people isn't like crunching numbers on a spreadsheet. School officials must decide the best way to get buy-in with the least amount of conflict. 

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