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Panel to look at proposed cuts in Sonoma Valley schools budget

Even though the planned meeting with the Sonoma County Office of Education superintendent was postponed, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board discussed its budget woes for almost two hours this Tuesday, Nov. 14.

The board was supposed to meet with Dr. Steven Herrington to discuss a letter SCOE had written to the district at the end of September. But because of a death in his family, Herrington had to postpone until the December meeting.

After deficit-spending for the past three years, the board has to cut $2 million from this year’s budget by the January meeting, according to the SCOE.

School Superintendent Charles Young admitted that the district wasn’t in a great situation with the budget and said the district was working hard to resolve the situation.

“We knew this letter was coming,” Young said. “And we agree with its recommendations.”

The letter said that the district must implement a spending freeze no later than Oct. 1; that the staff must begin a thorough review of the adopted budget review; review all categorical programs; and develop a staffing ratio consistent with enrollment projections.

Young said that he’ll present the cuts next week to a committee that includes the superintendent’s cabinet and four additional people – representatives from both the teachers and the classified unions and two other people from the community.

And while the committee will bring recommended cuts to the board in January, former board member Helen Marsh said during public comment she thought the timeline was too short.

“There won’t be an opportunity for comment or input,” Marsh said. “Typically in the past, we had stakeholders meetings.”

Marsh was on the board for 10 years when it went through several rounds of budget cuts during the recession.

“I would suggest a special meeting or a stakeholder meeting,” she said. “I fear that a conservative budget means staff cuts.”

Young said that what the board will be doing is not constructing a new budget, but just identifying places in the current budget where cuts can be made. “I’m not saying we can’t have that type of meeting,” he said. “But it’s a different process.”

Gina Cuclis, the Area 1 representative on SCOE, suggested holding off on a stakeholder meeting until after the board meets with Herrington next month. “You need to hear from him,” she said.

David Donnelly, a retired teacher, told the board that the district had spent more than $30 million on consultants in the past decade. “Be transparent and tell us what you need,” he added.

Former teacher’s union president Cheryl Coldiron told the board that “it must be the correct $2 million … we did not cause this problem.”

After the public had its say, the board decided that if it took more meetings to fix the problem, they’d have more meetings – although nothing was scheduled that night.

“We have a problem,” trustee Britta Johnson said. “And we have a superintendent committed to solving the problem. We have to earn the trust of the community. And we have a hard deadline.”

Young said he was going to think seriously about what he heard at the meeting.

He pointed out that salaries and benefits account for more than 80 percent of the budget. “There’s very little left to cut,” he said. “There’s a lot that can’t be cut – and a lot that shouldn’t be cut.”

Email bill at bill.hoban@sonomanews.com