Thursday, August 21, 2008

Schools Open With Enrollment, Finances Down

First board meeting of school year busy with burst pipes, hopes

By Sondra Murphy
Burst water pipes and construction obstructions were concrete symbolism for the stressed public education budget as the new school year got under way in the Ojai Valley this week.
Hectic, first-day enrollment calculations and uncertain finances dominated discussion at the Ojai Unified School District board meeting Tuesday.
“Obviously, the question of the hour is enrollment,” said OUSD superintendent Tim Baird during his report. He explained that first day counts are hard to get and the next couple of days would bring more solid data on student numbers.
While the kindergarten enrollment numbers are stronger than last year, at about 221, and junior high students look to be more numerous than projected, the high school population is expected to be close to the projected 980, down from 1,149 in 2007-2008. “The bottom line is we’re going to be down about 100 to 150 students from last year.”
Mira Monte Elementary looks to be taking a big hit, down about 20 students, or an entire class, and a “ghost position” set up in hopes of the need for an additional teacher seems unlikely to materialize. All elementary school enrollments slipped, except Summit, which has 51, up two students from last autumn.
“The elementary division is staffed very tightly,” Baird said. “We’re as tight as we could possibly be.” The mandatory 3 percent reserve was met by the School District when the board approved its budget in June, but with an end balance of just under $35,000, it leaves scant opportunity to fund any surprises. “I think I’ve burned through your extra reserve,” Baird told assistant superin-tendent of business and administrative services Dannielle Pusatere during the discussion. “There is no little bit extra that we can dig into.”
Since schools are funded based on student population, the realities of declining enrollment are only worsened by the current California budget standoff. “There is no good news,” said Baird about the state budget. “There’s no resolution in sight and there’s a lot of gamesmanship going on. This could be the latest budget we’ve ever had.”
“We went to October once,” Pusatere recalled as the board members expressed anxiety over the situation.
“It could happen again,” said Baird. “There’s a crisis in this country right now over education funding.” The situation makes the outcome of the November parcel tax initiative important to maintaining the solvency of OUSD.
The ballot measure will ask voters to approve a tax levy of $89 per parcel annually for seven years. Unlike the failed parcel tax attempt of 2005, property owners over the age of 65 would be allowed an exemption from the tax.
Delays in summer deferred maintenance projects often haunt the first weeks of school and this year was no different. Low use over summer tends to send maintenance workers scrambling around as hundreds of bodies return to campuses each August to test the infrastructure. Deferred main-tenance projects are using the last of bond funds available to the district for certain kinds of structural needs.
Matilija Junior High and Nordhoff High schools had the added nuisance of leaking water mains on the first day of school. Repairs of old pipes are in progress at Matilija, while the leaks in the high school’s newer equipment are fixed.
Many district summer maintenance projects, such as roof repairs at four sites and walkway improvements throughout the district, are complete, while others have yet to be completed. The latter includes irrigation timer installations, electrical improvements and asphalt or playground upgrades, while Mira Monte awaits completion of a county-built sidewalk that currently exists as view-obstructing dirt hazards in front of that site.
Caution is encouraged around such campus obstructions bound to test people’s patience during school rush hours.
The theft of connection hardware has also delayed the construction of new visitors bleachers at Nordhoff’s stadium, but Pusatere said replacement parts were ordered and the seating should be ready for the crowds by the end of the week.

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