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Community support linked to school savings

TANYA CANINO, Sun News Service

When Superintendent Pat Gemma spelled out the financial picture of the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District to New York financiers, he had a feather in his cap that impressed them.Community support – even in the midst of tough fiscal times.”When we presented the financial picture of the district, we showed that we started last year with $500,000 in reserve and ended up with a $1.2 million reserve, even though we suffered a huge enrollment decline,” Gemma said. “They were very impressed and asked ‘how did you do that?'”The school district was able to accomplish the fiscal turnaround with the broad-based citizen group, the Fiscal Review Committee, that made fiscal recommendations to the school board which were implemented and accepted by the community, Gemma said.While this year the district had to cut custodians, maintenance workers, instructional supplies, clerical staff and athletics, the class sizes were kept at 20:1 or 28:1 student-teacher ratio. Academic programs supported by the community-approved parcel tax, Measure S, were unaffected, as well as the academic “extras” funded by the private Excellence in Education Foundation.The school district was recently notified of the results of its New York presentation last month: it achieved a good rating to sell its voter-approved North Tahoe and Truckee school bonds and the insurance it must purchase for those bonds is $145,000 less than expected.”In my opinion, the very low bond insurance premium and the ratings upgrade are a result of your administration’s professional and conservative financial management,” wrote Charles Youtz, senior vice president of George K. Baum & Company investment bankers. “It is apparent to me that the excellent presentationmade by the district was the reason for this significant savings.”The school district is not out the financial crunch yet, Gemma said, but “we’re definitely on the way back.””We’re curbing our spending as much as we can and maximizing our revenue. We’ve done a hell of a job,” he said.The district’s goal is to bring its reserve level up to 5 percent or 6 percent, more comparable to the average 9 percent reserve most school districts in California sustain, he said.”Then we can ride through the storm of set backs in enrollment,” he said.Currently, the school district ended up with about $850,000 in reserve at the end of 1998-99, which fulfills the state’s required 3 percent reserve. (The New York bond raters were considering $1.2 million as the reserve because they include Measure S money that the school district does not count as reserve.)Beginning the 1999-2000 school year, the district thought it might be short $200,000 for its reserve and the Excellence in Education Foundation offered to cover the shortfall.”It was helpful to me to say to people in New York that we had that kind of community support,” Gemma said.The school district ended up not needing $200,000 from Excellence in Education this year, but the private nonprofit foundation wants to ensure that the school district won’t be short for its reserve in future years.The foundation is working to raise $300,000 to set aside as a cornerstone of the school district’s reserve, not to be spent but to be kept somewhat like an endowment, Gemma said. The district is calling it a program continuation fund.Already, teachers have been donating to that fund and an Excellence in Education Ski Day will be held Dec. 13 at Northstar-at-Tahoe to raise more money, Gemma said.”It’s a painless way to give to the education foundation,” said foundation board member Roger Kahn of the ski day at Northstar.The Excellence in Education Foundation is also planning to mail letters to parents soon asking for a donation for this reserve fund.”We’re not out of the woods yet, although the school district did a miraculous job from the superintendent down to the guy who sweeps the floor in the elementary school,” Kahn said.Once the district has built its reserve, it can add back some of the cuts it made this year and last year, Gemma said, adding that he hopes to have more custodians next year.Kahn believes the community will respond to the foundation’s request.”If people feel they give enough, they probably do. But there’s a whole other group of people who want to do more,” Kahn said.Gaining community support in the past has been a concerted effort, but has paid off with the passage of school bonds for new facilities in 1992 and 1998 and with the continued voter support of Measure S.The Measure S parcel tax of $60 per year for property owners brings about $2 million to the district each year, a total of about $400 per student. The Excellence in Education Foundation donates $20 to $30 per student, Gemma said.When the state of California funds students roughly $1,000 less than the national average, the parcel tax and foundation make a difference in Tahoe Truckee schools, Kahn said.”You’ve got this demand to provide a level of product that is beyond what the school district can provide. If this is what we want, we have to be willing to pay for it,” Kahn said. “I’m really proud of the community.”And Kahn says the results are in the students, who overall work hard and stay out of trouble.Because of the community support of Measure S, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees decided at a board meeting last Thursday that the discussion of whether to charge for busing should be dropped for a while.Gemma reported that he asked the Measure S Citizens Review Committee and “to a person, they felt that home-to-school transportation charges would be a mistake.”The next Measure S parcel tax will be in 2001, Kahn said. When the committee begins surveying people about the parcel tax, the district might ask that a question about busing fees be included on the survey, Gemma said.He noted that if TTUSD charged $1 per bus trip, it would raise about $300,000 a year and cost $180 per child, Gemma said. On the other hand, for example, if the Measure S parcel tax increased from $60 to $69 a year, it would raise $500,000 and would be a tax deduction for parents, unlike a busing fee, he said.The Measure S committee will be considering whether or not the community would support an increase in the parcel tax, Kahn said.There are not many school districts in California that have a parcel tax, which must be approved by two-thirds of the voters.According to School Services, there are only ????.”The community is continuing to desire and therefore support a high quality education program,” Gemma said.


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