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State funding crunch forces officials to consider cutbacks

SHERRY MAYS

If the numbers don’t figure up, the school district may be bankrupt next year.

At a budget workshop meeting Monday night, Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Pat Gemma outlined “doom and gloom” budget revisions to the board.

“We’ll get through this year, but not without cuts,” he said. “Next year could be a lot worse.”

Gemma said the budget woes are a culmination of declining enrollment, state budget cuts, conditional funding from the state and salary increases. If it was one without the others, the budget would not be in the crisis it is now, he said.

Gemma presented recommendations for budget revisions, and suggested a professional audit of the entire district budget by FCMAT, the Fiscal Crisis Management Advisory Team. With an objective eye, the team’s professionals, assembled with business and accounting managers and administrators from other districts, will sort through TTUSD’s priorities, needs, desires and wants.

When Gemma saw the state budget unfolding against the district, he met with staff, teachers and the public to find out what the district needed, wanted and desired.

Annually, the district proposes a budget in July and finalizes it before the end of the year. The state budgets were finalized midsummer, and district officials agreed that this year was worse than any other year for funding reductions.

“We were told the state was going to have a large surplus in its budget and that all districts would see the wind-fall,” said board Trustee Debra Darby, who is the district’s legislation representative. “What we forgot was that it was an election year, and what the board of education was promising didn’t really happen. By the time everyone got their hands into the pie, there was nothing left.”

Truckee’s Darby, who has been a boardmember for seven years, said she has seen the district “tread water” before, but never this bad.

“Something finally had to give,” she said. “This is the year.”

Darby faults the state for the lack of funding and clear misunderstanding of the district’s needs. When funds are given to the district, they are usually accompanied with conditions that they be used in specific ways.

“We are worried that if we go bankrupt we won’t have control of our district financially,” she said. “Well, if you consider how the state wants us to use our funding, we don’t have control now. It’s time we get local control of our money.”

In addition to the state’s budget falling short on transportation funding and wind-fall profits, salary increases for certificated and classified employees also hit the district this year.

“We are not saying that we regret the increases,” said Karen Van Epps, boardmember and lake side representative. “Our teachers and staff had waited long enough.

“We all want quality education, teachers and curriculum, but it costs money. In a small-wealth area, it is hard to build the income that we need.”

During the meeting attended by a majority of educators in a packed boardroom, all boardmembers agreed that they salary increases were fair and equitable and in no time would they ask staff to reconsider a deal for lower pay.

Alternative curriculum was the basis of the board’s unanimous vote to include the Prosser Creek Charter School in the district, something educators are now looking at closely because of the movement of students from the district to the school.

Seventy-five students transferred out the district’s mainstream schools to the new alternative charter school, bringing the total at the school to about 300 students. About 70 other students, who live in the district, attend the school, with the other 150 students living within the state but not within the district.

“We didn’t expect as many students to move to the new school,” he said. “There was legislation that was passed after the district approved the school. It really hurt the district.”

The average daily attendance costs for each student is $3,600, of which the charter school was to pay the district 15 percent. The new legislation changed the percentage of reimbursement to 1 percent, a difference that Gemma said is debilitating.

“We have to adjust to the change,” he said. “We are working together with the charter school for a win-win situation.”

In total, the district’s enrollment is down 215 students from the projected figures, 110 students below last year’s enrollment.

“This is a huge anomaly,” Gemma said. “Nothing has come close to this historically.”

Boardmember Suzanne Prouty of Truckee said the declining enrollment cannot interfere with the district’s effort to pass the upcoming budget to build a new facility.

“Just because our enrollment fell, doesn’t mean that we are not still overcrowded,” she said. “This is a quality issue. We are trying to maintain 20-to-1 but are at our max of 33 students in some classrooms. With the 60 less students at Truckee Elementary School, it only means that the school is at 158 percent capacity not 160 percent.”

The net loss of the lower enrollment equates to about $340,000. Other items affecting the budget are:

$174,000 to rebuild the 3 percent reserve because of strings attached to site block grants.

$55,000 in snow removal, $85,000 for increased salaries for staff development credits.

$105,000 in utility costs.

$9,000 for bus driver staff development.

$50,000 for additional maintenance project costs not currently budgeted.

$20,000 in excess legal costs

$50,000 for athletic transportation.

$4,500 for the outside FCMAT audit.

The additional budget items amount to $892,500, which a portion of could be offset by improving utility efficiency, chartering out the district’s buses, charging higher fees to use the district’s facilities, and possibly charging home-to-school transportation.

An additional $44,500 will be cut from site budgets, special education, transportation and district office budgets collectively.

“One of the biggest frustrations is unfunded mandates,” Darby said. “The costs of the Unz Initiative (prohibiting bilingual education) and 20-to-1 are huge. Facilities and program costs are never funded. We collect taxes locally and should be able to decide what to do with the funds locally, not in Sacramento. They (State Board of Education) don’t know anything about our kids.”

Van Epps said she is looking forward to working with the public, especially the business community in trying to rebalance the budget.

“We had representatives from the business community at the meeting,” she said. “I appreciated their comments. We need more people who deal within this community to participate.”

She added that plugging in business strategies to education budgets can be difficult, because education funding is conditional, but said that objective viewpoints will be welcomed.

“In budget crunch times we have to look at our priorities,” she said. “We can’t sacrifice academics, so we have to get creative with other programs. Are athletics our priority? Are electives? We have to look at the most important pieces.”

Van Epps used South Lake Tahoe as an example. Without funding from a bond similar to the district’s Measure S, South Lake Tahoe had to cut athletics, electives and free transportation.

“Schools with budget crunches aren’t new, the crunch is just new to our district,” she said. “We have to look at creative solutions, and hopefully with the help of the audit and outside public comment, we will find them.”

Gemma said the district is aiming to make cuts as far from students as possible.

“We don’t want to be draconian and cut personnel,” he said. “That would be our last step.”

FCMAT will visit the district to review the budget next week, with its final report expected in early November.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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