There's bad news for employees of the Victor Valley's largest employer: The Hesperia Unified School District is facing midyear budget cuts and all-but-inevitable layoffs in the next two school years.


"It's not easy, it's not going to be pretty. But we're going to get through it," Superintendent Mark McKinney said Tuesday.


Budget crisis, round two


In September, state legislators passed what McKinney called a "get out of town budget. Put something down on paper and run."


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has already called the legislature back in session to close the additional $11.2 billion deficit that has grown since the budget was signed.


Schwarzenegger has said tax hikes will be necessary, but even if he gets all $4.4 billion in new taxes he wants, a $6.8 billion shortfall will remain. And, the governor has said, some of the cutting necessary to close the gap will be coming from education spending.


Seventy-three percent of the HUSD's budget comes from the state, in the form of Average Daily Attendance payments based on the number of students attending school. ADA funds are likely to be cut back further, and declining enrollment hasn't helped: There are 500 fewer students attending school in the HUSD this year, which means a loss of $2.9 million in revenue this year.


The picture doesn't improve going further into the future. (Despite the state legislature's inability to get a budget passed until the new fiscal year is underway, the legislature mandates school districts deliver budgets to them for approval two years in advance.) McKinney's targets for cuts are $2 million for the 2008-2009 school year already underway, an additional $1.5 million for the 2009-2010 school year and then an additional $2.5 million in cuts for the 2010-2011 school year.


For the superintendent and the school board, all this means making deep cuts and soon.


"The more I can cut this year, the less I need to cut next year," McKinney said.


HUSD to cut more expenses


"The right here, right now, is going to get worse," McKinney said.


Cuts that do not require the school board's oversight are already underway. Some decisions were easy: The HUSD was paying a window washing company $1,200 a year to wash the district office's windows. The windows will remain dirty now.


Other decisions, though, will need board and community input.


Earlier this year, the district outraged parents when they pushed back the minimum distance secondary students have to live away from their school in order to qualify for busing. The outcry eventually led the school board to reverse the decision, but busing costs may have to be revisited.


A possibility for cutbacks this time: Busing students to away game sports competitions.


"I want to encourage sports," said McKinney, who has a child who plays competitive sports in the HUSD, "But I don't know if I can pay to transport them to competitions."


This time, though, he wants to get parents involved earlier in the process.


"I want to bring more parents in and say 'here's what we're facing, here's what we're doing."


McKinney had already planned on holding an open forum for community members in December and expects budget cuts to dominate the conversation.


Layoffs


Layoffs are all but inevitable in the coming years, simply because there are few other places that the district can cut: More than 80 percent of the $160 million HUSD budget is salary and benefits.


But McKinney hopes to have as few layoffs as possible, even if that means uprooting employees from their current locations and placing them somewhere else in the HUSD.


"We are having to re-look at how we staff schools," he said. "I would much rather have the conversation of saying 'we're going to move you over there' ... but the alternative is no job."


The HUSD is scheduled to open Oak Hills High School and Krystal Elementary School in 2009, both of which will provide safe landing spots for employees that the district might not otherwise be able to afford, but there are only so many new schools opening, and thus, so many job openings. And even there, the district will be looking at doing more with fewer people, up to having co-administrators float between school sites.


"We're not laying anybody off this year," McKinney said. "Next year, I can't guarantee it."


One thing he can guarantee: No lucrative buyouts this time for early retirees. "Golden handshakes" are a valuable tool in encouraging expensive long-term employees to move on, and make way for less expensive new employees -- or no employees at all. The HUSD just can't afford those, this time around.


"We just did that three years ago, and I'm still paying for it," McKinney said. "There's no sweetheart deal to be had."


There's one way to save millions of dollars, and perhaps avoid layoffs: freeze the automatic advancement most HUSD employees receive each year, up a step on their particular pay category's ladder, or horizontally across to another ladder if they've gotten more education. But these step and column increases -- what the rest of the working world calls raises -- are part of the HUSD's contracts with the two employee unions, and the unions would need the consent of their membership before the HUSD could go ahead with such a freeze.


But even with reshuffling some employees and freezing step and column increases, Sacramento may well force the district's collective hand on layoffs: Recent budgets have reduced the Class Size Reduction subsidies districts receive to hire more teachers and lower the ratio of students to teachers in classrooms. This spring, the district let go kindergarten teachers after the state cut back CSR payments.


"If the state keeps reducing [the subsidy], we won't be able to afford it," McKinney said. This time around, CSR cuts would likely affect 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 9th grade teachers.


Deadline, timeline


The decisions on what to cut will have to be made relatively quickly: State law says teachers must be notified by mid-March if their services will not be required in the new school year.


In November and December, HUSD officials will be meeting with representatives of the district's two employee unions, discussing the size of the cuts to come, and where they could come from.


By February, the HUSD will finalize a plan on the cuts for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years.


As a result, the HUSD, including its two newly elected school board members, will be facing a long hard winter full of difficult decisions.


"We cannot afford to put our heads in the sand and hope it gets better," McKinney said.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.