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Smooth sailing for Newport-Mesa Unified

May 04, 2002

Deirdre Newman

NEWPORT-MESA -- The school district's strategic financial planning and

frugal mind-set are keeping it afloat, while other districts flounder in

a battering of financial storms this budget season.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education

painfully excised about $384.6 million from next year's budget and

approved raising class sizes in the fourth through 12th grades. Board

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members said it might take another $44-million cut to fully balance the

budget.

The Huntington Beach Union High School District is expecting to trim

nearly $4 million from its budget by laying off more than 30 employees,

closing two summer schools and cutting back on the program for disabled

students.

And in January, the Irvine Unified School District voted to close an

elementary school and made severe cuts to compensate for a projected

$5.2-million shortfall.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District's sunny financial outlook is

based on moves taken over the last four years to pay off debt and align

the budget with its strategic plan.

"We're very conscientious about the process," trustee Dana Black said.

"We're aligned so every dollar is accounted for."

It wasn't always that way.

The district suffered its share of ups and downs throughout the last

decade as the economy fluctuated between recessions and boom times.

After the county bankruptcy, however, Supt. Robert Barbot worked with

teacher groups and parents to identify ways the district could steel

itself against lean financial times.

The result was the creation of a strategic plan and the alignment of

the budget to that plan, making sure to ferret out any frills, Barbot

said.

The strategic plan also helped the district focus on its priorities,

such as raising test scores, and gave it a leg up in competing for

grants, Barbot explained.

Another top priority was paying off more than $10 million in debt,

Barbot said. The district used money it got back from the bankruptcy to

achieve the goal.

Paying off the debt in turn enabled the district to improve teacher

salaries.

Another factor working in the district's favor is a trend of

slow-growth over the past few years, trustee Wendy Leece said.

"We've been pretty constant, and the projections have been pretty

accurate," Leece said.

While the district has made it this far without breaking out the

budget ax, Barbot said he is concerned about next year's state budget

because of potential cuts and timing.

"I think it's going to be a late budget, and that worries us," Barbot

said.

A late budget means the board must adopt a district budget based on

guesswork, without knowing how much revenue it actually will have to work

with from the state. The board then must reshuffle its debt when the

state budget is finally adopted, Barbot said.

Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budget called for $487 million in education

program cuts statewide.

* Deirdre Newman covers education. She may be reached at (949)

574-4221 or by e-mail at o7 deirdre.newman@latimes.comf7 .

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