CASA GRANDE — The writing was on the wall last fall when the first student enrollment numbers started trickling in.
The numbers indicated a declining enrollment, which also meant a cut in state funding — causing a $1.2 million budget shortfall the Casa Grande Elementary School District faced going into the 2019-20 school year.
That prompted Chief Financial Officer Tom Wohlleber and Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales to brainstorm and meet with staff to figure out how to close the deficit.
On Tuesday, the hard work paid off when Wohlleber presented to the Governing Board a proposed budget. It includes an operating budget of $52,093,955 that has a 5 percent pay increase for teachers, bringing the average salary to $52,755.
“No rock is going to be left uncovered,” Gonzales said. “We are going to look at everything we can to save money while still providing lots and lots of services for our kids.”
The major area which the district cut was in staff, and it will slice $945,000 from the budget, but not from layoffs. Instead, the reductions came through the normal attrition process of teachers and staff either retiring or leaving the district.
“Ultimately our goal is to avoid layoffs and try and do everything through the attrition process,” Wohlleber said. “That may not always be possible (in the future).”
But Gonzales said she thinks it’s possible because of baby boomers and some Generation X members reaching retirement.
“We have a number of individuals that are hitting that retirement cliff, and they are retiring,” she said. “So as they retire we don’t have to hire as many new teachers. But even at that, we always have new teachers that we are hiring.”
Having fewer teachers in the classroom should not be a problem because of the lower enrollment numbers. Gonzales said the average class sizes for fourth to eighth grades are about 28 to 30 students, while the lower grades have class sizes between 20 and 25 students.
Gonzales added that the preferred class size is between 20 and 25 students.
“I think teachers would love to have a class size of between 20 and 25,” she said.
Among other staff reductions will be not filling full-time positions in skilled maintenance, custodial staff and transportation and reduction of overtime.
Other areas included a reduction of substitute teachers by having certified staff serving as substitute teachers, which led to Gonzales filling in a few times in the classroom this past school year.
“It’s not just myself as CFO, but it’s the leadership team,” Wohlleber said. “We really tried to engage our staff in this process as we go on.
“This isn’t just one year and everything is going to be pretty. It was very important that we open those lines of communications to be a part of this process.”
According to projections the district shared with PinalCentral in April, it is expected to continue to see a steep decline in enrollment — going from 6,352 students in 2019 to 5,495 in 2024.
The result is expected to be even more budget shortfalls in the future and the possibility of more cuts. But where?
Wohlleber said the 2019-20 budget calls for not filling two custodial positions. He said, as a result, it caused the district to be short about 18 custodians compared to what it had in the late 2000s.
“I think our custodial and maintenance level, we are at a level that any further reductions in our staffing will affect our ability to service our schools at this point,” he said.
“Part of that is assessing what level of service do we want to go to?” he asked. “Do we want to go to every other day cleaning of our buildings? The cleanliness and having good, safe and healthful and clean facilities for our students and staff is critically important. At some point in time if you keep cutting then you begin to compromise that.”
Wohlleber added that the approach to the budget is certainly challenging, and it forces the district to look at all opportunities to be more efficient.
One area the district did look at cutting was after-school activities such as athletics and tutoring clubs. It’s a cost to the district of about $130,000, according to Wohlleber, but it was met by a road block in Gonzales.
“It was something that I definitely put my foot down,” she said. “It is something that I don’t want to ever see happen. I believe what happens after school for kids is really an important part of what keeps them motivated to continue learning and coming to school. We need to keep kids connected in positive ways and after-school extracurricular activities helps them do that. The tutoring helps them to be able to compete academically in extracurricular activities as well.”
For Wohlleber, who has been with the district for two years, it’s his job to figure out how to balance a budget that makes cuts with minimal impact.
It’s challenging, he said, and it’s necessary to understand all the implications of those decisions, not just in the present but also in the future.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Michael Cruz, communications and marketing specialist for the district, said. “These are children’s lives. We’re in charge of their future and it’s our job, with due diligence to make sure that we are doing everything right to position them to be successful.”