GUSTINE - Budget cuts have begun in earnest in the Gustine Unified School District.

School board members were presented a number of options for cutting about $2.3 million from next year’s budget at a study session last Wednesday.

A number of cuts already factored in will shave about $1.8 million from spending next year, Dr. Bryan Ballenger, district superintendent, told the board, but another $500,000 or so needs to be trimmed from the budget.

“We have gone through and started looking at the budget and seeing where we can work on and get the low-hanging fruit,” Ballenger stated.

Governor Newsom’s May budget revision, as expected, reflected deep cuts in education. The state in January had anticipated increasing per-pupil, local control funding formula revenues to schools by 2.3 percent. The May revision cuts that by 10 percent - leaving school districts with an effective cut of around 7.5 percent in funding from the current fiscal year.

Adding to the budget challenge, Ballenger said, the district is seeing its elementary enrollment continue to decline - which may be further exacerbated if some families opt for home schooling over having their children return to the traditional classroom. He said the district will reach out to each of its families to gain a better understanding of how many may be planning to home-school.

Ballenger laid out several approved budget cuts. The highest-dollar cuts are slashing the nearly $1 million supplies budget by half, saving $479,000, and cutting the travel and conference from $376,000 to $50,000, a savings of $326,000.

Unless needed to accommodate enrollment, Ballenger said, the district will not fill five vacant elementary teaching positions.

“With the freeze, not one teacher will lose their job,” Ballenger told the board. “Some people would need to be moved around, but nobody will lose their job.”

The district has also reduced hours or eliminated some classified positions, cut its textbooks budget and significantly trimmed spending for professional development.

But with another $500,000 in cuts needed, Ballenger said, other options must be on the table as well.

Furlough days are one possibility, he said. A single furlough day of all district employees would save $80,000.

Freezing step and column increases on the pay scale would save the district $250,000.

Furloughs and freezing the step-and-column increases would have to be negotiated with employee groups, Ballenger emphasized.

He said management employees would make those concessions as well.

“We have all said that we are sharing in this,” Ballenger emphasized. “It is every single person (in the district).”

Eliminating district-paid health insurance for board members was also on the list of possible cuts.

Doing so would save the district $66,000 a year.

Additional budget cuts which could be considered include the elimination of adult school, reducing counselor work days by 10 a year, ending school resource officer agreements with the Gustine Police Department and Merced County Sheriff’s Office, and eliminating librarian positions, among other steps.

“We want to make sure that we are doing this in a way that is sensitive to our people as well as what is right for kids,” Ballenger commented.

The board will have another budget study session on June 3, and must adopt a budget at its June 24 meeting.

The objective, he said, is to balance the budget without dipping into the district’s reserves.

But one challenge, Ballenger added, is that the district does not yet know what modifications will be required in order for schools to reopen. But virtually all, he said, will cost money.

Board President Kevin Cordeiro suggested that the district will strive to take appropriate steps without over-reacting. He said the budget challenge is also an opportunity to take a close look at spending to see what perhaps could or should be cut regardless.

“We are not taking this lightly,” Cordeiro stated. “At the same time we don’t want to hit the panic. We don’t want to start doing things we don’t need to do.”