Disproportionate budget cuts frustrate elective teachers, students who fundraised last year

Kevin Huang
Lower schoolers play a game of Knockout during lunch. According to PE department chair Michelle Myers, this year she may not be able to buy small basketballs for the lower schoolers, so they will be forced to use larger middle-school ones.

In recent years, the school’s overall budget has been about $10 million. This year, due to a drop in enrollment, there was an approximate $500,000 decrease, according to head of school Lee Thomsen. In other words, the total budget went down by approximately 5 percent.

This led to cuts across the school. Breakthrough was forced to become independent, maintenance was minimized and a lower-school assistant teacher was let go.

In addition, the Octagon was severely affected by the budget drop.

Every year, the Octagon elective receives $6,000 from the school. But in the fall, that budget was reduced to $1,000, which is less than the printing cost of one issue.

Adviser Patricia Fels was notified of the cut by head of high school Brooke Wells right before school started. She was told that the cut was so drastic because the Octagon had raised a lot of money through advertising sales last year and could, therefore, afford to take the hit to its school-provided budget.

“I was pretty shocked at the time,” Fels said. “I had assured the staffers in the spring that we didn’t need to rush to buy anything new for the next year because our budget, unlike some other school budgets, carries over from year to year.

“I never considered that the school would take away its own contribution, especially to that extent.”

The staff had discussed purchasing live-streaming equipment in the spring, which would have cost about $3,500. While that would have been an easy purchase prior to the cut, it would now push the paper into debt.

Former Octagon business manager Sonja Hansen, the one responsible for the Octagon’s financial success last year, was also very disappointed when she heard the news.

“It just felt really demoralizing. Everything I did last year – out the door. It was a really big deal for me last year to be organizing the budget and calling up these families. The Octagon budget was so huge.”

As part of her job, Hansen had sent emails to 60 businesses around Sacramento and produced and handed out flyers at Open House and around Loehmann’s Plaza. In total, she raised $11,715.

“When the money was taken away, I felt kind of betrayed,” Hansen said. “Our budget was supposed to cross over. The money I raised was supposed to stick with us, and it did. But we were also counting on the money from the school to back us up.”

Hansen said that the worst part about the cut was the lack of notice.

“I understand why they (cut the budget). I know times are tough, so I understand their decision. It would have been nice to have a heads up, though.

“I guess it taught me that I never want to be in a situation where I get the rug pulled out from under me again, in college or in my career.”

Now, Hansen said, the current and future business managers are in an awkward position.

“I don’t know what (current business manager) Chardonnay (Needler) is supposed to be doing now,” Hansen said. “Should she actively be trying to seek new business? Or should she pull back on the reins? This whole thing kind of limits us. It discourages us from trying hard.”

Despite the cuts to its school-funded budget, the Octagon is in no danger of running out of money, Fels said. To compensate for the cuts, Wells assured Fels that the school would not allow the Octagon to go under, and that if something couldn’t be afforded, the administration would fund it from the high-school budget.

Fels, however, dislikes this compromise.

“I’ve always liked holding out ad sales as a carrot to the staff,” she said. “I tell them, ‘If you really want this, you have to earn it.’”

When questioned why the Octagon’s budget had been so severely reduced, Wells said that he does not make budget decisions.

However, the Octagon wasn’t the only elective budget that was cut. According to Michelle Myers, PE department chair, her lower-school budget was cut by 60 percent, and her middle- and high-school budgets were cut by 20 percent.

Unlike the Octagon, the PE department doesn’t have a secure means of raising money for itself. Consequently, cuts like these, Myers said, are a major setback.

Myers explained that there are two categories of expense in the department: replacement and addition. Usually there is enough money to replace what needs to be replaced, and sometimes there is even enough to buy additional equipment.

This year, however, there isn’t even enough to replace. And the youngest students are suffering.

“We have to figure out what’s important – what we must have to keep going,” Myers said. “For example,  I might not be able to buy 10 new lower-school basketballs.

“Could I use middle-school basketballs? Yes. (But) they’re bigger, they’re heavier, they’re not ideal for the little kids. They’re hard, and we’d rather have the softer equipment for them.

“It’s not ideal, but if we’re in a situation where budgets have been cut, it’s kind of what we have to do.”

Even when there is money, it’s still hard to get new items, as PE equipment tends to be very expensive, Myers added.

“I’ve gone to (chief financial officer) Bill Petchauer and all my heads to ask to purchase some large-ticket items on what we call the Capital Campaign budget. (For) items over $1,000, (you) can technically apply to have those items come from a different budget. It used to be that all the heads would tell the different teachers that this was available – don’t know if that still happens.

“For example, we need a landing mat for gymnastics. The last time we purchased one was 25 years ago. It’s lasted that long, which is a great thing, but it’s going to be (about) $2,500 to replace.”

Whether or not other electives were cut as severely as PE and the Octagon were – or even cut at all – remains unclear.

Patricia Kelly, visual arts department chair, was unsure of her high-school budget for the year. Band director Bob Ratcliff declined to comment as to whether his elective budget was affected. Theater director Brian Frishman also declined comment about his elective budget.

By Marigot Fackenthal

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