State of Chawanakee Unified District

District continues to search for ways to generate a 'positive budges certification'

editorial@sierrastar.comJune 4, 2014 

With enrollment numbers for the next school year expected to remain much the same as this year's — at about 1125 students, the Chawanakee Unified School District continues to search for ways to garner a "positive" budget certification.

"Currently, our total balance in the reserve fund is less than the 4% mandated by the state of California," District Superintendent Bob Nelson explained as the reason the district has a "qualified" certification of its budget.

District enrollment has increased each year over the past five years, according to Nelson who is currently in his second year at the helm of the Chawanakee Unified School District. The district has grown from 795 students in 2009-2010, to 906 students in 2010-2011, to 1031 students in 2011-2012, to 1057 students in 2012-2013, and to 1125 in the current school year.

The district has had a "qualified" budget certification since the first interim financial report for the 2012-2013 school year.

"If the current fiscal trend continues, we hope to be back in a 'positive' certification by this time next year," Nelson said.

The district has taken a number of steps to establish future financial stability. "We have had five days of furlough for the past three years," Nelson said. "We also made some staffing reductions in years past and placed significant restrictions on district spending."

These staffing reductions have included asking district leaders to do more, "such as serving in a multiplicity of administrative roles, in order to keep our system as lean as we can reasonably manage," Nelson said. "It is not a perfect system, but it is helping us to get back to financial stability."

"At this point we are about as lean as we can reasonably go. We still need to look at the state's new mandate to staff at 24:1 in kindergarten-third grade. If for any reason a district should exceed that number, a significant amount of funding designated for class size reduction would be lost. This forces us to staff a bit larger in the primary grades at 22 or 23:1 to make certain we are never in penalty. One of the difficulties in managing a smaller rural district is that one or two big families could potentially push us over the maximum, because the margins are so tight," Nelson said.

As the result of previous deficit spending, the district currently makes an $850,000 annual payment on a 30-year long-term certificate of participation (COP) that goes until 2044. This payment represents an amount just under 10% of the total district's annual budget, according to Nelson, and a long-term indebtedness of more than $25 million.

The state's recently adopted Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) changes the way districts are allocated funds from the state.

"The LCFF currently includes a commitment to stop deferrals of state payments to local school districts. That will help us quite a bit, because when the state delays payments to the district, we are forced to take out a temporary loan in order to meet all of our monthly payroll needs. When the deferred payments are received, then the loan is paid off, but the local district ends up paying thousands of dollars in interest payments annually, for meeting its regular obligations," Nelson added.

"Eastern Madera County is not a huge beneficiary of additional funds under the LCFF, because we are not significantly impacted with large numbers of bilingual students as are the districts on the valley floor. The change definitely does not represent a windfall of new revenue to our community," he said.

Nelson does not see any budgetary relief for the district from a possible influx of developers fees.

"Developers fees only come into play when a new subdivision is created, likely precipitating new school construction," Nelson said. "In the past two years, this has been a non-factor for Chawanakee. There is some discussion of building homes in the Rio Mesa area, in the Tesoro Veijo project, but it is reasonable to think that any developer fees provided would be used to support new school construction in that area. The time frame is unlikely to have any net impact on our current 'qualified' status," he said.

Personally, Nelson has made a commitment to the district's employees and to the community to "keep whatever cuts are necessary as far away from the kids as possible. But with that, I have also drawn a line in the sand in saying that we will not deficit spend as a district during my time here, either. Furthermore, I have made a commitment to our local community and to the County Office of Education that once we get out of qualified status, we won't be going back. I intend to make good on that commitment, hopefully as early as this time next year," Nelson said.

While staff has been stretched thin with lean financial times, Nelson feels people try to support one another and the local community has been very generous in filling in gaps when needed.

"Our board is committed to seeing us get back on track financially. They take a conservative approach in being good stewards of the local taxpayers' resources, and they want the best for our kids, everyday. We are working hard as a team to make that vision a reality," Nelson explained.

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