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Community hears Sonoma Valley school officials’ plan for deep cuts

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SUPERINTENDENT SEARCH

A Special Board Meeting to discuss the superintendent search process has been set for 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13 at the school district office at 17850 Railroad Ave. This meeting is open to the public.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District board will vote Tuesday on the recommendations of a special finance committee to cut more than $2.5 million from next year’s budget.

At a public session Wednesday, members of the district finance committee talked about how SVUSD ended up in financial hot water and outlined the recommended cuts to about 100 people in the Altimira multi-purpose room.

Bruce Abbott, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services, told the crowd that the district has been deficit spending every year but one (2012-13) since 2010-11, and that expenses have been growing faster than revenues.

The reason the deficit spending was avoided in 2012-13 was due to a one-time windfall following the dissolution of the state Redevelopment Agencies.

“We had an infusion of one-time money in 2012-13,” he said. “The district received a $4-plus million payment from the Redevelopment Agencies.”

Expenses have been growing, Abbott said, because staffing is up. He said the majority of the growth in staffing is because of transferring special education programs from the Sonoma County Office of Education to the district; preschool staffing; teachers on special assignments; and the AVANCE early-childhood-education program.

“The district isn’t getting enough money for special education,” he added.

Abbott explained that the district had two kinds of funds – restricted and unrestricted. The deficit is coming in unrestricted funds, which are funds that run the day-to-day operations of the district. Restricted funds are tied to specific programs and purposes.

“We need to live within our means in our unrestricted funds,” Abbott said. “Our revenues are going down while our expenses are going up.”

One area in which the district has been hit hard is retirement costs and health care benefits.

“Salaries grew 29 percent from 2010-11 to 2016-17 while retirement costs were up 89 percent and health care grew 82 percent. We have no control over retirement. The state tells us what we have to pay.”

And he said that Sonoma isn’t unique with skyrocketing retirement and health care costs. “This is common across the state,” he said.

Because of all the variables, the district will transfer a $3.6 million surplus from an “as needed” special-reserve fund and a $510,000 surplus from another to the general fund. The district will also cut more than $400,000 in staff-related expenses and $2.1 million in staffing cuts which amounts to the equivalent of 26.4 full-time positions.

But Abbott said the district is offering a bonus to teachers who take an early retirement, and as of Wednesday, 12 teachers have filed for early retirement.

Karen Strong, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district is looking at staffing levels.

“We’re not cutting programs,” she said. “We’re increasing class size.”

She told the audience that the district will be taking class size “up to the contracted maximum.”

She said class size maximum in K-3 is 25 students, but currently the average is 20. In grades 4-5, the maximum is 30 while the average is 26. “We have some classes that are 50 percent under maximum,” she added.

Abbott, Strong and Superintendent Young took questions and comments from the group in a spectrum from special education to out-of-district transfers to summer school.

There was a lot of concern about special education, but Young said the district has no intention of cutting the program.

SUPERINTENDENT SEARCH

A Special Board Meeting to discuss the superintendent search process has been set for 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13 at the school district office at 17850 Railroad Ave. This meeting is open to the public.

“We’re not done,” Strong said. “We need to look at special education. We need to look at long-term finances.”

“This is a dynamic situation,” she added.

Young said it could be May before the district finalizes everything in the financial package. “But I’m disappointed that I have to stand here and talk about cutting costs,” he said. “This is an extremely difficult decision... But this is the best possible proposal.”

The school board will take up the proposal at its Tuesday night meeting. The proposal is expected to pass because the district must have a plan to cut more than $2 million delivered to SCOE by the next day, Jan. 17.

Tuesday’s meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Community Meeting room, 177 First St. W.

Email Bill at bill.hoban@sonomanews.com.