Senior America Lopez teaches her seventh-grade English literature class.

Board cuts Breakthrough funds; entering class will be half as many pupils as last year’s

Senior America Lopez teaches her seventh-grade English literature class.

This summer’s incoming class at Breakthrough Sacramento will be the smallest ever: 18 students, only half as many as last year.

The smaller number of students is a result of a decision by the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees to reduce the support the school gives from $150,000 to $75,000.

According to Kelley Taber, president of the Board of Trustees, the school has less money for Breakthrough because of the school’s projected falling student enrollment next year.

Headmaster Stephen Repsher said the move was a necessary step in maintaining the long-term viability of the program.

“We believe in the Breakthrough program and mission,” Repsher said.

“But we need to work together to get (Breakthrough) to a point where it’s financially self-sustaining, which was one of the original goals of the program.”

According to Taber, the school has funded any difference between the cost of the program and outside funding since the program’s inception, but in the last decade the gap has grown much larger.

“The Board has to balance a lot of different financial priorities, between tuition increases, faculty salaries, academic funding, and arts and athletic budgets,” Taber said.

“We have to look at the school’s budget and expenses as a whole.”

According to Taber, during the last 22 years, Country Day and the school community have given $2.1 million to Breakthrough in direct cash support, not including in-kind donations (such as air conditioning and use of the facilities).

On the other hand, other programs such as Breakthrough Oakland and Summerbridge Hong Kong are funded, either entirely or in majority, by local public-school districts or outside sources, respectively.

(Photo used by permission of Adolfo Mercardo)
Breakthrough students participate in a quiz bowl to test the knowledge they’ve acquired through classes.

The average Breakthrough budget gap has been $147,000 a year for the last three years, according to Taber. Furthermore,  the school gives roughly $170,000 worth of in-kind non-monetary support to Breakthrough annually.

News of the impending cuts was first relayed to Breakthrough director Adolfo Mercado in late February at the end of the student recruitment process.

“I was shocked when the conversation was brought up, because although there were concerns about the budget and we’d discussed increasing fundraising in the past, we’ve never been told to cut down on the number of students like this,” Mercado said.

“I feel like I was not being honest with our partner (recruitment) schools, because at the last minute we are only admitting half of our original estimate  – only 18 percent of all applicants.”

Mercado added that this year’s applicant pool was exceptional.

“There were a lot of amazing applicants that we simply weren’t able to take on,” Mercado said.

“Twenty-seven semi-finalists had perfect scores on the written application and interview!

“It’s a wonderful group that’s really hard to select from.”

The sudden cutback in student numbers is due in large part to the outsized role the school plays in keeping Breakthrough in the black, according to Mercado.

Country Day’s previous contribution ($150,000) represented the largest individual source of funding for the program (60 percent), with the remainder originating from a variety of sources (foundations, individual donations, corporations, etc.)

Mercado said the $150,000 support that the school gives Breakthrough is only 1.3 percent of the school’s yearly budget.

After Mercado was notified of the reduction, he approached the Sacramento City Unified School District for funding.

SCUSD previously supported Breakthrough, but for the last four years hasn’t given the program money. Fifty-eight percent of Breakthrough Sacramento’s students come from Sacramento Unified schools.

(Photo used by permission of Adolfo Mercado)
Breakthrough students converse with teacher and senior America Lopez in the middle-school quad during a short break between classes in the 2015 summer program.

In March, Mercado was promised a $50,000 grant from the school district.

He hoped that it would be enough money to add a few more students.

However, his requests for an expanded program were denied by the Board of Trustees.

Repsher explained that this decision was due to long-term financial planning.

“There’s no way to know whether or not the $50,000 grant would become an annual gift, so we must be conservative with spending,” he said.

Repsher likened the situation to the planning before the Great Recession.

“We don’t want to make overly optimistic assumptions,” he said. “This way we can ensure we aren’t caught without the funding.

“This mentality has protected our community financially for a long time.”

Taber added that the grant money had not yet been received.

“We’ve gotten a commitment of $50,000, but we won’t be able to confirm the funds until we sign a memorandum of understanding with the school district, and the new budgetary calendar begins on July 1,” Taber said.

Mercado said that within two years, the program will have a total of only  36 students. (The number of returning students will be unaffected for the 2016 summer program.)

That means that by 2017, Breakthrough Sacramento will be one of the smallest sites in the collaborative if the cut continues, according to Mercado.

“We’ll be smaller than Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano or Breakthrough Norfolk, both of which service communities far smaller than we do,” he said.

Although the school is scaling back its financial commitment to Breakthrough, the number of Breakthrough students offered scholarships to Country Day will be unaffected.

(Photo used by permission of Adolfo Mercado)
Students enter Breakthrough every morning through a human tunnel as their teachers chant “G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G.”

Historically, Country Day has enrolled, through a partial scholarship program, a total of eight to 12 Breakthrough students in the high school each year.

Repsher explained that all scholarships given to Breakthrough students are granted via the school’s Financial Aid Committee, which is independent of Breakthrough.

Although they will not be affected, some current Country Day and former Breakthrough students reacted negatively to the news of program reductions.

Senior America Lopez is one.

“Those students aren’t going to get that life-changing opportunity,” Lopez said.

“I wish that someone could step in to fund the program and scale it back up.”

But Repsher stressed that the school is still committed to the program.

“We want Breakthrough to stay an integral part of our community,” Repsher said.

“Breakthrough is a important on-campus reminder of our school’s commitment to support education in Sacramento.

“We have and will continue to support Breakthrough assiduously.”

—By Manson Tung

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