Funding to change for school districts statewide

Area districts continue to face economic challenges

cgeorge@sierrastar.comJuly 24, 2013 

With the coming of a new school year, area school districts are again working on the challenge of balancing budgets based on fluctuating, estimated dollars — a daunting task for districts like Yosemite Unified School District and Chawanakee Unified School District who have depleting reserves to shield them from potentially dramatic cuts down the line.

Schools are still learning about how they will now be funded since a new model was passed by the legislature last month called the Local Control Funding Formula — to give extra dollars to districts with low-income children, foster youth and English learners.

For Mountain Area schools, the new model "might be a hindrance rather than a help," said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Chawanakee Unified.

However, "as a safety net, all schools have been guaranteed that they will not get less funding per child than they did last year," said Glenn Reid, superintendent of Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary School.

"Some districts across the state will see dramatic funding increases due to the LCFF, due to the fact that they have large numbers of students who are English learners or who live in poverty," Reid said. "This is not true in our Mountain Area, so our increases will be much more modest, if even noticeable. LCFF will be phased in over eight years, so no one will see really huge changes in this first year."

Other changes this year to state funding include one-time dollars, allotted per student, to implement a new approach to teaching called "Common Core" being adopted statewide. Roughly $200 per student is being allocated to help with this transition, Reid said.

Yosemite Unified Superintendent Jim Sargent said the new Common Core approach is more project-based and will be centered on "assessing critical thinking skills — understanding how they get an answer as opposed to just getting the right answer."

Sargent said teachers are really excited about the new approach and that they are a "significant improvement" over the current state standards.

Yosemite Unified

Superintendent Sargent said Yosemite Unified faces three big challenges: loss of students; loss of developer fees from building projects that the district had once built their budget on; and state deficits of over 22%.

In looking to balance the budget, Sargent said the district has looked at "absolutely anything" to create savings. The district will be saving about half a million this coming school year from cuts made — including not filling three teaching positions following retirements this year; cutting operational expenses; joining services with the Bass Lake district for things like human resources and food services; and cutting back on the frequency of how often elective classes are offered.

"We've been very strategic about keeping every program but we've cut some offerings," Sargent said. "For example, we went from six wood shop classes to three."

Sargent said Yosemite Unified will be purchasing more technology this year by using the one-time dollars from the state for implementing the new Common Core teaching standards. The district has also made a commitment to keep classroom sizes at reasonable levels.

The district also remains in negotiations about the school calendar with its bargaining units of teachers and classified staff. Last year, the district had three furlough days to help cut costs.

Jim Monreal, Yosemite's assistant superintendent and chief business officer, said the district is currently estimating that a 7% reserve will remain, about $1.2 million, after closing out the books for 2012-13. The district is aiming to have at least a 3% reserve at the end of the coming school year, to comply with state recommendations.

"The 7% (reserve) is over one month of salary district-wide, so you can see how far that savings account goes," Monreal said. "The whole district has really worked well together to make tremendous progress in 2012-13 — we took a big chunk out of the deficit — but it will be a constant challenge for our district as we move forward into 13-14 and 14-15."

Yosemite's declining enrollment continues to be part of that challenge, with attendance numbers currently at about 1,760 students compared to more than 2,300 in 2008-09, Monreal said.

Still, the future remains bright, Sargent said.

"There's a lot of excitement about being a Badger and I can sense this," Sargent said. "We've been through some tough years but that's not gone away. That's something to be excited about. We are anxious to embrace change and the spirit of Yosemite High School is alive and well."

Bass Lake Joint Union

One of the biggest challenges the Bass Lake school district continues to face is declining enrollment throughout the area, losing 161 students since 2006-07.

Yet, due to hard cuts and looking for savings wherever possible, the district has the strongest reserve fund of all the Mountain Area districts with a 21% cushion, about $1.4 million.

"We are projected to deficit spend by a half a million dollars, but that may change depending on how LCFF (the new funding formula) works out for us," Reid said. "The district is in solid financial shape."

Bass Lake is the only district throughout the county that the state requires be funded completely on property taxes — making a large reserve important, since the district only receives two payments a year.

"In terms of cuts, we have made just about every cut that we can make and we are not planning on making more," Reid said. "Of course, we continue to look for ways to economize, but in terms of personnel, we really cannot cut further. If the enrollment continues to decline, then further cuts in this area could occur. Let's hope not."

Reid said while the one-time Common Core dollars that will be given to the district will not offer a huge amount of support, "these funds will be used in our district to purchase new materials, train staff and purchase technology."

The Department of State architects are currently reviewing the plans for a new gymnasium to be built at Wasuma Elementary School.

"As it will be the first school building of its kind in California, they will be very thorough," said Reid of the dome-shaped roof design, aimed to help cut energy costs. "Other states use them as schools, but not in California."

Chawanakee Unified

Chawanakee Unified's Superintendent Bob Nelson said the district is "making gradual progress — in the past we have deficit spent."

However, due to unpredictable funding from the state and delays in getting what is owed, the district continues to rely on a short-term school loan of $4 million, what they've had since 2009-10, to make ends meet, Nelson said.

The district currently has about $283,000 in its reserves, Nelson said.

New Common Core dollars this year will be used for new curriculum, training and technology, he said.

Nelson said there will be "no deep cuts this year" and that they noticed seven instructional assistants but that they will likely be bringing all of them back for the coming school year.

However, unfortunately funding for the district's new culinary arts school was not available this year and it was cut.

Nelson said the district is excited to utilize a new career technical education facility at Minarets High School this year for things like wood shop, metal shop and welding, and that Chawanakee is looking to provide district-issued visas for Chinese students to attend Minarets.

Minarets High School continues to grow, with 120-130 freshman estimated to be coming in for 2013-14, Nelson said. The high school recently graduated about 80 seniors this year.

"We turned a major corner (regarding the budget) and we are making headway," Nelson said. "My goal throughout this first year as superintendent was to get back to some sense of financial stability and to create positive relationships with the community and neighboring districts."

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