Trustees ask community for ideas at Jan. 23 meeting


By Kaylee Arca

After accounting reports showed a $13 million annual budget deficit by 2025, the Morgan Hill Unified School District may be forced to start cutting jobs to reduce costs and pulling funds from its two reserve bank accounts.

The administrative staff have identified about $5 million in potential cuts. They are looking to cut an additional $1 million.

MHUSD Superintendent Dr. Carmen García told the board at the Jan. 23 meeting, “We are not eviscerating, we are going to be tightening our belts. We’re going line by line with every single budget item. So it’s long, but it’s important to be super meticulous about it.”

Trustees pleaded with the gathered audience at the board meeting and asked the community for ideas and solutions for fiscal stability adjustment in the coming years.

Among actions it is taking to alleviate the crisis, the district is hosting a series of community forums about its Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The MHUSD employees, parents, and the community are invited to the LCAP meetings to provide input on the district’s allocation of resources toward specific actions designed to meet board established goals. The educational services department team is also going on a “roadshow” and visiting each school site in the district.

“We are the community center for our children and families,” said trustee John Horner. “The County of Santa Clara spends more than $700 million a year on youth mental health. But the students start with us. So the message constantly is, we know that if the students get the service they need on or adjacent to their school sites it happens and it’s effective. But, we can’t afford to keep doing that . . . The county needs to give us some of that money.”

The current board policy 3100 states the board intends to maintain a minimum assigned and unassigned fund balance in an amount equal to two months of operating expenses, about 17 percent of total general fund expenditures ($25 million). The reserve currently holds $31.8 million.

The district also has a second “special reserve” fund that holds about $2.6 million, said Lisa Lee, director of fiscal services.

During the meeting, the trustees proposed the idea of combining the two reserve accounts and reducing the board policy minimum to about 10 percent.

The board presented initial reduction ideas at the meeting. These include at least a $5 million reduction each year for the next three years.

While the district staff and trustees discuss potential reduction proposals, MHUSD employees anxiously wait to better understand the board’s priorities to see what programs may be reduced, changed, or cut with budgetary reductions. The scenarios may require more reductions than have been so far identified, said Jim Levis, president of the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers and a Britton Middle School science teacher.

“The district budget is still the most concerning and pressing issue that I believe is impacting the current and future stability of our district,” he said in addressing the board at the Jan. 23 meeting.

Major factors impacting the budget include the expiring of COVID relief money from the federal government.

“The district has been fully aware that these funds were limited and only one-time since they were originally allocated,” Levis said. “Some of these funds have been used for ongoing programs. As any financial expert will tell you . . . ‘Do not use one-time funds for ongoing expenses.’”

Another factor is salary increases for all district staff, at 23.5 percent during the past three years. The increases were approved by the board and are not unexpected ongoing expenses, Levis said.

Concerned citizens discuss at a January meeting at Sobrato High School how to deal with the budget deficit for the school disitrict. Photo by Kaylee Arca

“These raises have also been necessary in an effort to try to bring the average compensation for certificated employees closer to the county average,” he said. “If the district’s goal is continuing to hire and retain the most qualified staff, we need to have a competitive salary schedule, and these raises have helped to make Morgan Hill Unified more competitive.”

MHFT leadership spoke with the district’s executive cabinet members recently, and board members last fall, about deficit concerns. The budget has been discussed during at least two board meetings this school year, but the trustees have yet to provide any formal direction.

“The superintendent and the board have gotten us into this fiscal mess, and they will need to get us out of it,” Levis said. “It has not been brought about by anything other than spending more than we can afford to do. It cannot be blamed on the state or the federal governments. It is entirely homemade.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s current budget proposal does not show any expectation for state funding reduction. There are also no significant cuts in federal monies.

“This budget was approved knowing that we had negative, significant deficits moving forward,” Levis said.

One of the board’s initial ideas for budget reductions includes reducing non-classroom certificated and classified support. Although these employees are not assigned to a classroom, many of them regularly teach and interact with students. This includes teachers on special assignments, wellness counselors, and special education teachers.

“All three of these groups of educational specialists have significant impacts on the work that is done in our district,” Levis said. “They would be a tremendous loss to our students and our teachers whom they support daily.”

The number of employed teachers in the district is determined by the number of enrolled students. In recent years, it has been common for schools to employ an extra teacher or two to help with additional support programs. However, the number of students has decreased from 8,417 during the 2019-2020 school year to 7,964 during the current 2023-2024 school year.

The total number of teachers employed at MHUSD schools in 2019-2020 was 384. In comparison, the total number of teachers in the current school year is 410. This includes 10 additional TK teachers, which is a new requirement that was not in place in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the district’s public information office Lanae Bays.

If these and other positions are cut, class sizes will increase toward the contract limit. The maximum number of students per teacher is 36 in the middle and high schools.

“The two biggest factors that impact the students’ learning are class size and teacher experience,” said Nancy Altman, the board vice president. “And so it would be awesome if we could maintain the small class sizes in the elementary schools and then make sure we have highly qualified teachers to the best of our ability. That’s what’s really going to impact the kids and impact their learning.”

“My concern is that some of our most neediest students, those who are getting additional help in math and reading and the specialty programs, which have been very successful and well received . . . those support people could be eliminated,” Levis said.

MHFT leadership has provided some input on the potential impacts of the proposed district changes, but the determination of any changes or reductions in positions and employees is up to the district leadership and trustees.

“I’m certain that there are additional ideas not related to the sites or the employees who are doing the day-to-day work educating our students and supporting our teachers that could bring significant savings to the budget,” Levis said. “We just have to look harder to find them.”

Kaylee Arca is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter.