Tuesday, July 3, 2007

School districts see budget surplus


The Santa Barbara School District’s Board of Education voted 4-0 with one abstaining vote Friday to approve the district’s $119.2 million 2007-2008 budget.
The ’07-‘08 budget is 5.7 percent less than the ’06-’07 $126.4 million budget, but boasts a $4.8 million surplus that was somehow whittled out of various expenses and took some board members by surprise, since they approved $2.5 million in cuts during April in order to balance the budget.
“In this case there’s a lot more there than I ever though there would be,” said board member Kate Parker. “[That’s] $4.5 million in excess reserves that need to be given direction.”
Some of the programs cut or reduced in April include reductions in the district’s support for elementary and secondary GATE programs, reductions in the elementary music program and the elimination of some administrative positions.
Parker wondered why the board shouldn’t immediately begin bringing some of the axed programs back with the surplus money.
Edward Diaz, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, told the board the budget still needs to be reviewed by the county. He also said state funds given to the district will not be set in stone until August, when the state ratifies its final budget.
“It would be more comforting to get a clean bill of health from the county [before spending the reserves],” Diaz told the board and warned of what might happen if the reserves were spent and an emergency occurred.
“You would be in tough shape if you had that line in the sand drawn and something at a school broke down,” Diaz said. “Let’s make sure that that’s really there.”
But by the time August rolls around, Parker worries it may be too late.
“At that point it would be hard to reinstate some of these programs,” Parker said. “Children will miss out on a year of programs.”
Parker said she understood the need to wait and see what happens at the county and state levels, but proposed taking $1 million of the total and spreading it out now.
“Maybe we could play with a million,” Parker said. “I just would like to have it come back before the school year starts.”
The excess money represents a 786.8 percent increase over last year’s surplus of only $549,271, according to the budget document.
Such numbers represent a strange dynamic between the usually cash strapped district, which has faced and is expected to continue facing declining enrollment, and comes after the district reached a labor agreement with its certified employees (mostly teachers) early this year, which prompted the district to issue layoff notices to about 80 employees.
The number of lay-offs has since been whittled down to less than one dozen due to retiring teachers and others who plan on leaving the district.
Board member Bob Noel cast the abstaining vote, saying he wished the board had been afforded more opportunities to vote on particular items within the budget before the entire document appeared on the board’s action agenda for approval.
“This is the only time in the past 12 months we’ve had this on the action agenda,” Noel said. “I want them to quite presenting me with predigested choices.”
More than $60 million of the budget will go toward certificated employee salaries, $50.9 million of which goes to teachers.
Classified employees, which include janitorial, clerical and office positions, account for $18.3 million, while $18.6 million will be paid out in employee benefits – a 3.1 percent decrease from ’06-’07.
In a separate motion, the board voted unanimously to accept the ’06-’07 estimated actuals, which are the ending balances from that fiscal year and topped out at slightly more than $6 million.
In response to Parker’s and other board members’ questions, Diaz stated the difficulty of dealing with an ever-changing budget and being able to accurately predict how much money there really is.
“[It’s like] trying to do a tune-up on a car while the engine’s running,” Diaz told the board. “We have an unwieldy system to be the most kind about it.
“We’re making the right moves and we’re moving in the right direction.”

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