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Valley Forum: Making progress on school district budget

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We are in the midst of a busy and challenging time for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. Today, I am writing to provide an important budget update. I want you to know that we have taken a series of significant steps to turn around previous deficit spending patterns, and we are on the road to far firmer financial ground.

Other issues facing our district, including the matter of continuation of Honors English at Sonoma Valley High School, are in a decision-making process right now. I will be communicating with you about those and other matters in the weeks and months to come.

Regarding our budget, last fall our schools faced a serious risk of financial insolvency. Following several years of spending down reserve funds and utilizing one-time monies such as Redevelopment funds, the District was in a state of chronic deficit spending, which, if allowed to continue unabated, could have led to that untenable condition.

On the one hand, these expenditures were of high value, including preparations for the new Common Core Curriculum, as well as extensive teacher and principal professional development training.

On the other hand, the fiscal practices around this spending needed to be examined and substantially improved.

The Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) worked with us in a collaborative manner, but required a detailed written plan within a relatively short time frame. Our mandate was to reduce spending by $3 million over the next two budget cycles and to do so by Jan. 17.

We managed to achieve that goal. In order to do so we established a budget committee composed of SVUSD staff, union leadership and community members, who worked together to identify potential solutions which would meet our needs. The final plan included substantial budget cuts as well as number of improved fiscal practices.

Since nearly all of our funds are for salaries and benefits, most of the budget cuts are being made in personnel, through incentivized early retirements, elimination of several part-time positions and a minimal number of terminations.

While cuts of any kind are painful, we must live within our means, and believe we have done the necessary cutting in the least-painful way possible for our students. We are slightly increasing class sizes throughout the district, but to a level well within the accepted range for good learning outcomes.

Additionally, we have now fully staffed the finance department for the school district, with Bruce Abbott now serving as our Associate Superintendent for Fiscal Services, and Helen Miller serving as Business Services Manager. Our new Associate Superintendent for Instructional Services, Karen Strong, is also playing a positive role in the budget planning process, as are the principles and other site and district leaders.

I applaud the hard work of this team. Together they are putting our school district on steady ground for the future. Of course our top priority is the success and safety of all of our students. But to serve them as well as we possibly can, we must have our financial house in order. I can confidently say to you today, that we are well on the way to achieving that goal.

The district Board of Trustees have already approved the general framework for implementing these changes. However, approval of specific personnel actions will be on the agenda for the next three public board meetings on Feb. 13, March 6 and March 13.

Charles E. Young is the interim Superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.