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$7M budget deficit forces Sunnyside to cut teachers, staff across the board

$7M budget deficit forces Sunnyside to cut teachers, staff across the board

A budget shortfall of more than $7 million has forced the Sunnyside Unified School District to cut 160 positions, including teachers, counselors, administrators, specialists and paraprofessionals who provide classroom and one-on-one support for students.

The deficit is the result of underestimating this year’s student enrollment decline and Sunnyside’s inability to get a budget override approved by voters last November, district officials say.

The governing board approved the cuts on Jan. 14 to cover a $5.2 million shortfall in next school year’s budget. No positions are being cut this school year despite a nearly $2.2 million deficit. Instead, Sunnyside will pull from other funds to cover costs.

Sunnyside, Southern Arizona’s second-largest school district at more than 15,600 students, is also restructuring its program for students with mild intellectual disabilities, cutting its in-house suspension program and cutting classified substitutes who fill in for janitors, monitors and school safety personnel.

The district is integrating students with mild intellectual disabilities into general education classrooms, accompanied by para-pros, which is becoming more common. Although the move helps with budgetary needs, program director Leila Williams said it’s a move she’s been working toward for years.

Sunnyside Superintendent Steve Holmes said the cuts were designed to have the least effect on students. “We’re trying to create a more efficient model for our schools, given our budget constraints,” he said.

Besides a declining enrollment and serving a high number of low-income families, Sunnyside is the only local school district that doesn’t receive a tax levy for student programs from local property taxes, such as a voter-approved override. Voters have declined the last seven overrides Sunnyside has put on the ballot.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, also does not have a voter-approved override or bond, but it does receive a tax levy from its decades-old desegregation case.

But Holmes says the major reason for the shortfall is Sunnyside didn’t anticipate such a steep enrollment decline from last year, losing 400 students rather than the 200 students it budgeted for. The district had a 200-student decline the year before and a 50-student addition the previous year, Holmes said.

The district has lost 1,000 students over the last seven years, according to Holmes, and are projecting a 400-student loss next year. School funding formulas are primarily based on how many students a district has, making schools with fewer students more costly to run.

The employee groups being cut include teachers, teacher coaches, administrators, office staff, monitors, counselors, para-pros, social workers, exceptional education specialists, a nurse and other positions that work directly and indirectly with students. The steepest cuts presented to the board were 22 elementary para-pros, 20 para-pros for students with mild intellectual disabilities, 17 teacher coaches, 15 teachers and 15 front office staff.

The district later said it couldn’t confirm whether 160 positions were being cut because not all of the positions were currently filled, said spokeswoman Marisela Felix. Information presented to the governing board showed about 30 of the positions were already vacant or frozen, meaning there was no one in the position and the district wasn’t looking to fill it.

All employees in positions being cut were notified on Jan. 9. Some of them are retiring or resigning, so the district won’t know how many people will actually be let go until Feb. 7, Holmes said.

The district had to do some shuffling of Title 1 funds — federal dollars allocated to schools with high populations of low-income students — to make the budget puzzle fit together. They plan to move $1.3 million from Title 1 to pay for full-day kindergarten. Some of the staff and program cuts approved by the board were paid for with Title 1 funds, freeing that money up for the kindergarten program.

Melinda Atkins with her kindergarten class at Summit View Elementary School in the Sunnyside School District, Tucson, on Jan. 24, 2020.

The state only funds half-day kindergarten and not all local districts that offer full-day programs provide it for free. Some districts, like Amphitheater next year, are able to provide full-day programming through voter-approved overrides.

Sunnyside governing board president Buck Crouch said the district planned next year’s budget in hopes the override would pass.

“We were optimistic when we did the budget, knowing if the override didn’t pass, we’d revisit it,” he said.

While the cuts will directly impact students, with the loss of teachers, counselors, monitors, and other positions, class sizes will not change, Crouch says. Although the board hasn’t voted on whether to seek an override again this year, Crouch said he suspects it will. He wants the district to do a better job this time educating voters about the programs and opportunities Sunnyside offers. He worries fine arts and sports programs could be in jeopardy without an override.

“If we don’t pass an override in November, I would envision more cuts for the year after next,” he said. “We have no place else to cut that won’t affect students. ... I’m afraid the programs might be cut.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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