ESUSD approves district-wide notices, sweats state’s next budget moves
Much like Picasso, the Eastern Sierra Unified School District Board is going through a “pink period.” However, unlike the great artist, ESUSD’s phase signifies the beginning of uncertainty and torment, rather than the end.
At its regular meeting on Feb. 15, much to the chagrin of the public in attendance and the teachers on the receiving end, the ESUSD Board unanimously approved a resolution to send pink slips to every certificated employee in the District. According to the Board, this was simply the first step of many to come in the next few months as the State’s fiscal woes again leave schools in limbo.
The point that the Board tried to make to those in the audience was that these pink slips do not necessarily mean that any of the certificated staff will actually be laid off. According to Board President Doug Northington, it is just a necessary step to give the Board the flexibility to use layoffs as a last resort to make up for budget deficits that may be coming down the pipe.
“Everything, however, is up for negotiation,” he added. “As one Board member, I promise to do my utmost to make sure teachers aren’t laid off and that the cuts come from elsewhere.”
According to California law, if a teacher is not given notice that they could potentially be laid off by March 15, they cannot actually be laid off in that year, even though actual layoffs do not occur until May 15.
“School budgeting is a cart-before-the-horse scenario because of the state,” explained Northington. Schools are asked to figure out their budgets before they even know how much will be in them.
Schools in the Eastern Sierra receive their first budget apportionments in January.
This year ESUSD’s came in at $3.8 million, which is what the District had planned for, according to ESUSD Superintendent Don Clark. The second apportionment does not come in until April, a month after the deadline for sending out notices to teachers. ESUSD has $2.5 million budgeted for its second apportionment.
Even if the second apportionment is in on target, the state can still take back some of the money. This cash grab is relatively new for basic aid schools, Clark said.
Basic aid schools are primarily funded by property taxes. Until recently, they flew under the radar when it came to being part of balancing the state’s budget because the property taxes make them mostly self-sufficient. In the last few years, “Fair Share” fees have been imposed upon basic aid schools. This was part of the problem last year when ESUSD’s budget came up extremely short.
“The state took back $250,000 of our apportionments,” Clark explained. Of course, ESUSD’s deficit, which last year ballooned to more than $2 million, included many other factors as well.
“Much of the fault was on us last year, but none of it is on us this year,” Northington explained when discussing this year’s pink slips. “We are doing something totally different so that we aren’t coming up with a plan in two hours,” he added, referring to the late notice of the deficit last year and the Board’s scramble to come up with some type of solution at the eleventh hour.
But the public was not satisfied and thought that the blanket pink slipping was poor planning on the Board’s behalf. Those who spoke suggested that the Board had at least enough information for a more targeted, specific approach to the pink slip distribution.
“You need to treat staff with respect, but you’re saying you don’t have a plan,” said North County resident Ran Berlin. “You are taking the easy way out. You need to have a plan to back up the pink slips.”
Eastern Sierra Teacher’s Association Union President Darcey Lent agreed and pointed out that “the teachers do not feel the support of the Board” with this action.
In contrast the Mammoth Unified School District is only sending out a handful of pink slips because of personnel issues, not because of a need for a “reduction in force” as MUSD Superintendent Rich Boccia described it.
“We are confident that our reserve is healthy enough not to have to pink slip for a reduction in force,” Boccia explained further, even though MUSD could see cuts of up to $900,000 in a worst case scenario.
“Sending out pink slips is a normal procedure because we have to base our budgets on the State’s budget that is coming six months later,” explained MUSD Board member Greg Newbry, but sending pink slips to the entire certificated staff is abnormal, he added.
The Board, however, argued that they did not have enough information for a more targeted plan at this time.
“We are talking about a $200,000 deficit if we are lucky,” said Board member Matt Baumann, whose own wife will be receiving one of the pink slips. “Property tax apportionments are not going to come in on target. We have to be realistic. The way schools budget and are funded is a broken system. We know what we have and we’re fearing for the worst.”
“Last year we were told in January that the deficit would be $250,000 and it ended up at $2.2 million,” added Northington. “We can’t guarantee what it may be this year. The pink slips are just to help everyone understand the gravity of the state’s situation and how much is out of our control. We have to be on the safe side.”
Whether or not Governor Jerry Brown’s request for a Special Election in June is granted will play a huge role in school’s budgets for the next few years. Brown’s hope is to bring a ballot measure to the voters asking them to extend temporary increases in the state’s sales, income and vehicle taxes for five years. If the measure were approved it would alleviate the state’s need to take back apportionments.
“The governor wants to hold school’s harmless this year,” Clark explained. If the Special Election is granted, the state may move the May 15 layoff date back to June 15 this year in order to give schools a chance to see the outcome of the election before letting teachers go. The Board also approved a resolution on Tuesday that supports placing the revenue-extension measure on the June ballot if it moves forward. The Legislature has until March to decide whether or not to hold the Special Election.
“You asked for a change,” concluded Board member Bob Tems, referring to the election of three new Board members last fall. “Give us a chance. We don’t want to layoff anyone, but you have to let us see what the budgets are like. That’s what you put us here for.”
Is the Board pitching in?
The Sheet received a copy of an anonymous complaint form to the Mono County Grand Jury against the ESUSD Board this week. The unknown complaintant states that while the Board cuts in areas such as certificated staff, they continue to receive stipends and healthcare benefits.
According to Grant Herndon of Schools Legal Services, ESUSD legal representation that had yet to see the complaint, healthcare benefits outside of the approved monthly stipend allowed for school boards is not illegal as is suggested in the complaint.
Northington clarified further that ESUSD board members are not receiving monthly stipends and not all of them are receiving health benefits, either.
“We only receive health benefits if we elect to have them,” Northington said. “Some of us do not receive health benefits.”
In response to whether or not Board benefits of any shape or form were also on the chopping block to keep budget cuts away from the classroom, Northington simply said, “Everything is up for negotiation.”