Sonoma ?Charter School finances raise alarm

An “urgent” call to parents from the director of Sonoma Charter School about a “budget crisis” was intended to grab the attention of parents and get them involved and show up at a meeting, the director, Marc Elin said, downplaying the level of drama of the message emailed Dec. 6 to school stakeholders.

But the school’s budget shows an increase in deficit spending that can’t be sustained.

“If that deficit continues, he’s broke,” said Bruce Abbott, associate superintendent of Sonoma Valley Unified School District, referring to Elin and the charter school. “He doesn’t have enough in his reserves” to cover the budget.

Abbott said he hasn’t seen the school’s first interim report yet, which will include a three-year projection, so he was disinclined to call the deficit a “crisis.” The district itself is operating in a deficit for the next few years, but has a healthy reserve fund to support it.

Alex Wilkens, the parent representative on the school’s board of directors, said the meeting held Dec. 9 was a “community forum as a first step in outreach to key stakeholders” and that discussions with other stakeholders will take place as the school works on drafting the 2020-21 school budget.

Elin said the urgency was his way of getting parents to attend the meeting and be a part of the decision making process of setting school priorities.

“You clearly need to know your priorities,” Elin said. “If you have to make reductions you refer to your priority list.”

He’s especially concerned about the $40,000 fundraising segment of the budget, which is included in the school’s revenue.

“I’m behind the curve of what I’d like to see,” Elin said.

Enrollment is declining at Sonoma Charter School, in much the same way it is throughout the Valley, Elin said. Part of the meeting involved asking parents for ideas on how to attract more students.

“It was really a brainstorming meeting. We are activating the parents. We asked them, ‘What are your ideas?’” Elin said. “That was sort of the spirit of it.”

The school’s 2018-19 budget included a deficit of $71,000 and is looking at a deficit in 2019-20 of $220,000, which is an increase of more than 200 percent.

“On a $2 million budget, that’s a pretty big deficit,” Abbott said.

There are some increases in spending mostly in salary increases, but nothing that looks out of the ordinary, Abbott said. There is a more than 50 percent decrease in revenue due to mandated cost reimbursements from the state. Abbott explained that Gov. Jerry Brown handled reimbursement payments to schools differently than does current Gov. Gavin Newsom, who chose to help school districts offset the rising costs of unfunded retirement benefits.

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