School board should re-examine numbers, cut expenditures

Feather Publishing

In a letter to the editor a couple weeks ago an individual humorously wrote about the JK gang and an ambush at Boyle Ravine. Aside from impugning the independence and thoughtfulness of the group that launched the recall, this individual called us a bunch of vigilantes who should focus our attention on the state and allow the school superintendent and district to do its work to deal with the budget crises.

I would have thought this person would have a better understanding; he’s employed in the school district’s financial office. The district’s budget numbers tell a story quite different from what we’ve been hearing from Superintendent Glenn Harris and his administration.

Harris and Director of Business Services Yvonne Bales have been underestimating revenue and overestimating expenses for each of the last three school years. The superintendent and Bales have been saying over and over again, “We’re facing a severe budget crisis.” During this time, however, the district had a budget surplus of more than $7 million. That’s based on the district’s numbers.

In my home or business, if we’re facing a budget crisis we cut expenditures. Using the district’s own numbers again, expenditures over these three school years were not reduced, even though the district lost 200 – 300 students. It begs the question: Where is the money going?

One part of the answer is that not enough money is going to student education. Last year, Plumas Unified School District failed to meet the state requirement that 55 percent of the district’s funds go to direct student educational services. Who has legal responsibility for assuring that it does? County Superintendent Glenn Harris.

How dire is the financial condition of Plumas County schools today?

A few months ago, Harris and Bales projected a 2011-12 school year deficit of $4 million. Coupled with this number and future projections, the district has been trumpeting the message “the sky is falling and drastic measures are needed.” The district administration then announced school closures and a layoff of more than 30 teachers.

At a recent board meeting, and largely the result of increasing outside scrutiny, Bales reported a revised 2011-12 deficit of $2.8 million. Some of us believe the current year deficit is around $1 million or less, but it’s hard to know because of the way the district moves money around in its accounts.

At this same board meeting, Bales did not refute the point that the district’s deficit was inflated by as much as $750,000 because this money was moved into deferred maintenance, and “unavailable” for other uses. Make no mistake, the board retains control over this money and can make it available for direct educational services.

Harris and Bales have created a budget crisis as an argument to close schools and to justify measures of their own choosing. The administrative response to the crisis included no discussion of alternatives, no discussion of cutting administrative expenses, and no mention of keeping cuts farthest away from students. Residents of Plumas County are committed to a good educational system for their children and will do just about anything to save it when they believe the “sky is falling.” It just so happens to be a big lie.

The current worst case scenario for the 2011-12 school year coupled with the surplus of the three previous years and the reserve Harris inherited when he took the helm of the district still leaves this district with one of the fattest reserves of any school district in the state, at roughly 50 percent of the annual budget.

What about future years?

Next year’s budget projection by the administration is already off by $1.5 million because of a one-year extension of Secure Rural School legislation. The legislation will hang in limbo for a while because of current Washington politics, but the district will receive money from this. Bales, however, won’t consider it because she includes only currently guaranteed dollars in her projections.

Ignoring potential income is bad business when projecting future revenue and basing action like layoffs and school closures on such projections. As a former school board member, I always advocated for a conservative budgeting approach, but I also wanted one that was both realistic and honest.

Indeed, some members of the school board have asked for budget reports that include alternative scenarios reflecting different possibilities. The district, however, has ignored this request. Instead, the administration offers only one: the doomsday scenario. And as one thoughtful resident has shown, these projections are repeatedly off, by a lot.

To move productively into the future together, we must take some crucial next steps.

The budget fiasco and abhorrent district leadership are key reasons the “vigilantes” launched the recall of Superintendent Glenn Harris. Fixing this district means first and foremost removing Glenn Harris from office.

Understanding the true financial condition of the district is a critical next step. Based on a 7-11 committee recommendation, the school board secured the services of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. This organization will provide an honest, independent assessment and make recommendations. It’s overdue.

Finally, the district should immediately announce that it will hold course and make no significant changes this year, and extend the 7-11 committee process in order to build on and extend their excellent work. Thoughtful, hardworking people have stepped up to complete work the district should have done, and have provided excellent analyses and recommendations under disrespectful timelines and without needed information.

Building on their work will involve examining the needs of all communities individually and collectively in light of accurate current budget numbers and thoughtful budget projections. Residents of this county have come together and asked for nothing less.

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