Unless they’re extremely cool people, Ramona school trustees are feeling the heat — and the community’s watching how they’re handling it. Teachers, support staff, parents, and students are challenging their decisions and budget numbers. Why give teachers preliminary pink slips every year? Why lay off support staff? Students need their elementary music teachers. Why not cut administrators. Why do your budget projections always change? Most of the questions have answers, and most result from state law, union contracts, or the state’s ever-changing budget. Some, however, are decisions of the elected trustees.
After the criticism, the board room clears, and budget reports, proposed fee hikes, and suggestions for saving money occur. Trustees wish the audience would stay. Why not have those discussions earlier — before the monthly pleasantries and before hearing from those at the meeting only to make a presentation or to present their case on an issue? The board did it in January. Everyone heard the review of the governor’s budget, and many found it informative.
The trustees face tough decisions as a result of what seems a perfect budget storm. The economy tanked, state politicians continue their budget dance, payments are due soon on the $25 million loan for which none of the current trustees voted, and student enrollment continues to drop.
When the economy was singing, money almost fell into the laps of public agencies. The word layoffs was seldom uttered, employees received annual raises, the public footed the entire bill for health benefits, and programs expanded. As money dwindled and costs increased for everything from water to insurance, belt-tightening started.
During the good times, the district kept a healthy reserve. Someone saw what was coming. For the past few years, that reserve has been one factor helping to keep the district in the black. By June the reserve’s projected to be just above the state-required 3 percent. As the fiscal picture worsened, other decisions came. The district offered higher-paid teachers incentives to retire: one year it was $30,000 and the next it was $80,000. Other districts reduced salaries and asked for health benefit and unpaid furlough concessions, but Ramona chose other options.
The five people sitting on the board — all parents with children in the district — sought election or re-election during a tough time. Few options remain, and all are unpleasant. Trustees are facing their neighbors and their children’s teachers. That’s not easy, but voters elected them for a reason. The community expects them to consider what’s best for the overall fiscal health of the district — and thus the students — not what makes one employee or group happy. In a way, they’ve sheltered most district employees until this year.
Not every decision they make will be “the best” in everyone’s eyes, but we’re depending on them to be fair, honest, realistic, fiscally sensible — and strong.
The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.
— Martin Luther King Jr.