School district heads toward fiscal precipice, county warns

This is one in a series of articles about Ramona Unified School District’s fiscal crisis.

By Maureen Robertson

Seated from left, Keith Butler, Brent Watson, and Lora Duzyk from the County Office of Education listen as Ramona school officials discuss the district's budget. Sentinel photo/Maureen Robertson If Ramona Unified School District is to remain fiscally solvent, it needs employee concessions, trustees agreed as they proposed cuts of 13 percent for teachers and 12 percent for support staff for the 2012-13 budget year that begins July 1. District administrators and managers have agreed to a 12 percent reduction in compensation. Details will be presented to the board in July, Superintendent Robert Graeff said. “We’ve lost our tool of time,” school board president Dan Lopez said at the trustees’ June 7 meeting. “We’ve lost three, four years now of time that we cannot get back.” Of the 42 school districts in the county, Ramona’s is one of 11 that anticipates being unable to pay its bills in the next two years. Based on projections, Ramona Unified will end this school year June 30 with a $4.2 million balance, but it faces a $1.3 million deficit in 2012-13, an $8.7 million deficit at the end of 2013-14, and $18.5 million in 2014-15. “Your financial position has deteriorated and something needs to be done — significant and soon,” said Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent of Business Services for the San Diego County Office of Education. The district’s last report to the county showed a severe structural imbalance and large deficit spending, Duzyk said. The district may be able to cover the 2012-13 deficit, but “(20)13-14 is huge (and) ‘14-15 is almost beyond belief at this point to deal with,” she said. “It’s really very simple,” Duzyk stated. “(If) you don’t have cash, you don’t pay your bills.” Responding to questions from Ramona trustees about other districts, Duzyk said all have experienced about the same level of cuts from the state. “Some districts have cut deeper than you have,” she said. “We started seeing furlough days and salary rollbacks three or four years ago, and they’ve been ongoing.” County Office of Education directed districts to assume the tax initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot fails in their 2012-13 budgets. State law requires school districts to adopt budgets by June 30. The board’s obligation is to preserve the district’s financial solvency, Duzyk said. If it can’t, the county initially would step in and, if the situation didn’t improve, the county would call the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team and, if necessary, the state would intervene. “That’s not somewhere you want to go,” she said, later comparing it to Armageddon. The state would loan the district money — with interest — assign a state administrator, shift the school board to an advisory group, and the superintendent would be gone, she said. “Once the state gives you a state loan, they will step in and take over your district....and make sure that you get to fiscal solvency,” she said. “...The focus would be on the bottom line.” Salary and benefit rollbacks, school closures, layoffs, and larger class sizes could take place, “whatever they deem necessary to bring you back into fiscal solvency,” she said, responding to questions. Earlier in the meeting, representatives of the Ramona Teachers Association (RTA) and California School Employees Association (CSEA) accused the district of regressive bargaining for changing its collective bargaining proposals after the governor’s revised budget in May. If the two current proposals were approved, the district would save $3.7 million. Of that, $2.7 million would be from the teachers and $1 million from the support staff, which includes employees such as teacher aides, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. The cuts could be in a variety of ways, “through salary, furloughs, or benefits or perhaps another solution they might have to offer,” said Graeff. About 120 people filled the board room, with some standing in the doorway. Nearly half wore blue RTA T-shirts. “If you made a mistake by sunshining too early, then you must live with that mistake,” said Donna Braye-Romero, RTA president. “...To change your proposal now, if it (state budget) becomes worse, constitutes regressive bargaining. If you do that, we will amend our unfair labor practice charge filed against you to include this as another sign of bad faith bargaining.” Jim King, president of CSEA’s Ramona chapter representing support staff, agreed. In addition, CSEA members “have taken more cuts and furlough days than management and teachers over the last two years or so. But the more we do, the more you ask. This needs to stop.” CSEA workers are tired of being bullied he said. Teacher Grant McNiff, RTA bargaining chair, said most people gasped when they read the district’s latest proposal, “and they asked why.” “Why are cuts going from 7 percent to 13 percent? Why are so many people being laid off after so many others retired? Why are there going to be upward of 30 students and beyond in kindergarten through third-grade classes?” he said, adding, “Why are the district budget projections always off by millions of dollars?” The teachers have “asked all along for something that is fair and reasonable,” he said. “Your proposal is neither.” As Lopez announced the close of the public hearing for the district’s proposed 2012-13 budget, most of the teachers left the board room. Some of the people who remained commented on teachers leaving before Duzyk’s presentation. “They don’t want to hear what the county has to say,” said one woman. “They don’t care. All they care about is the teachers.” Trustees approved the district’s $47.9 million 2012-13 budget in a 4-1 vote, with Dawn Perfect casting the dissenting vote. “The budget is a plan and I just don’t think that this plan as presented, I just think it fails at solving both the short-term and the long-term fiscal issues for our district.” With $42.2 million in revenues and $47.9 million in expenses, the budget has a structural imbalance of $5.7 million, Ostermann said. “Ramona Unifed is facing an unprecedented financial crisis,” he stated in his report. “...Concessions from employees is clearly the only way out.” Resident Dave Patterson called the situation a fiscal trainwreck. “Apparently we haven’t been looking very far down the road and as a result the district is functionally bankrupt,” he said. Among his suggestions: Close at least one school, consider year-round scheduling, and cut administration. If, as one teacher said at a previous meeting, the teachers union doesn’t reflect the view of many of the teachers, “then the teachers need to take control of the union and change the leadership,” he said. “Bold and creative changes are desperately needed here, but all we hear is the only way to fix it is cutting the teachers salaries,” he said. “...The time for hesitation is past for all parties involved.”

   
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