Thursday, September 4, 2008

Delays Put Schools In Funding Bind

OUSD gets conflicting advice on how to plan as standoff in Sacramento grinds on

By Sondra Murphy
Public school district administrators must wish they could send truant officers after our state legislators as the California budget stalemate drags on.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Ojai Unified School District board, the state fiscal crisis had the panel and audience alike harshly grading the poor performance of our representatives in failing to provide the dollars owed to schools during record-breaking budget delays.
Assistant superintendent of business and administrative services Dannielle Pusatere gave the 2007-2008 unaudited actual financial report to the board, but there were no surprises since the district has been poring over figures for months in making tough choices about staff and program cuts from the loss of more than $1 million from its $25 million annual budget.
Because of the many sources and categorical funds, school finances are always tricky to account for, but they are currently extra challenging, “because we’re without a state budget,” said Pusatere. “They are statutorily required to give us state aid, so they’re going to give us more money than we should have in some areas, but less in certain categoricals.”
For example, cost of living allowances are currently given to schools at 6 percent, but, based on the May revision from Sacramento, are expected to be rescinded after categorical funds are reinstated. Once the state budget has been approved, Pusatere anticipated the numbers would even out during the adjustments.
“There is not much agreement right now,” said superintendent Tim Baird about the malingering state budgeteers. Public school districts were advised last spring to plan their budgets based on the May revision, but now advisors are suggesting otherwise. “When we establish a budget and hire personnel, we are locked in for a long time,” said Baird about OUSD. “There are some repercussions for the state in terms of borrowing money. There will be some cash flow issues for some state agencies.” Baird added if the state ends up giving school districts less than projected in May, OUSD could be faced with making midyear cuts.
The budget crisis has served to mobilize valley parent groups in working to help OUSD keep programs in schools as funds decline. As PTAs and PTOs have been doing since their beginnings, local parent organizations continue to give to their neighborhood schools as best they can.
These efforts were reported on Tuesday as members of each school’s parent group gave specifics about their extensive contributions of time, energy and money to their various sites. Also referenced were the groups’ involvement in the Save Ojai Schools campaign facilitated by the Ojai Education Foundation in order to avoid school closures this year as declining
enrollment and dwindling education funds hit the district hard.
The SOS campaign garnered more than $62,000 in welcome donations, but does not rescue the district from perpetual fiscal calamity. The board acknowledged the contributions of the strong parent involvement in OUSD schools and positive campus climates and pride.
“I think parent involvement in our schools is so hugely important and is what makes our schools work so well,” said member Rikki Horne. “You’re providing so much to the kids.”
“This is just an amazing group of people,” said Baird. “I’ve been in many classrooms this week and there are many parents in those classrooms. Everyone is so charged with enthusiasm.”
With the many layoffs that have taken place over the past decade, OUSD should be used to the presence of volunteers as parents have historically served to fill the void created by eliminated employees. Employees whose jobs are preserved often end up with a greater workload while hours, benefits or dollars are shaved from their contracts.
Baird will address the Rotary Club of Ojai-West next Tuesday in support for Measure P this November. State budget delays make the outcome of the 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 to help maintain small class sizes, retain highly qualified staff and continue to offer fine arts and athletic programs, avoid school or library closures and improve student proficiency in core curriculum. Unlike the failed parcel tax attempt of 2005, property owners over the age of 65 would be allowed an exemption from the tax.
With so many variables contributing to budget uncertainties, the board voted to schedule a budget study session on Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. OUSD board and administration will examine their options in meeting financial obligations and start a priority list in expectation of needing to cut $1 million per year for the next three years. Enrollment figures will likely be solid enough by that date to be factored into the effort.

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