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AUSD Faces $18 Million Shortfall in State Funding as It Builds New Budget

Photo by David Muñoz.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Monday’s meeting of the Alhambra Unified School District’s board was devoted to one complex subject: money. Money in this context is the budgetary situation the district faces as it works feverishly to prepare the spending plan for 2020-2021 and beyond in some very uncertain times. 

Superintendent Denise R. Jaramillo prefaced the AUSD staff presentation with a few comments. She cut to the chase with the headline that, based on revised projections from the State of California, which provides a majority of AUSD’s funding, the district will have $18 million less to spend next year than it had this year. At current trends, and without remedial action on the budget, that figure could go into the mid-$30 million range over the next three years. 

While the $18 million loss of revenue was sobering, Jaramillo congratulated the board for its foresight in putting aside money and watching expenditures during good economic times. That reserve, believed to be around $10 million, has left the district with a possible infusion that may help offset the overall shortfall.

During the meeting, Jaramillo also announced a series of steps to mitigate the financial situation including a hiring freeze, except for legally mandated  positions, and an effort to redistribute work both in the district office and on campuses. She also said the district would begin discussions with its labor partners — the Alhambra Teachers Association and the California State Employees Association — on the current financial realities and possibly the reduction of district contributions to various plans. Those talks were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week.

She said she would also make a formal request of the board to loosen restrictions on $9.5 million in funds previously voted for various programs.

Asst. Superintendent of Financial Services, Josephine Quach walked the board through a complex powerpoint presentation that touched on a number of income presumptions, pre-CODIV-19 and present, and showed specific challenges in certain sectors. In every slide and in nearly every category it appeared that the district would have to do much more with much less. 

CERTIFYING THE BUDGET

After the weighty tables in the PowerPoint, Quach explained budget certification and what it means.

  • POSITIVE: Based on the current projections, the District will meet its financial obligations for the current fiscal year and the two subsequent fiscal year.
  • QUALIFIED: Based upon current projections the District may not meet its financial obligations for the current fiscal year or two subsequent fiscal years.
  • NEGATIVE: Based upon current projections the District will be unable to meet its financial obligations for the remainder of the current fiscal year or for the subsequent fiscal year.

The QUALIFIED option was highlighted in red seeming to indicate that this is where the district is at this point in its budgetary efforts. 

She concluded with three other points:

  • It is still important to keep in mind that there are still a lot of “unknowns.”
  • Economic data will continue to inform revenue projections, like personal income tax, unemployment figures, and updates in the National and State GDP.
  • The California legislature sill need to weigh in with its priorities, which may or may not align with Governor Newsom’s.

“We are not in this alone,” Quach said regarding the challenge to public education faced by so many districts “and it will only get harder.”

FUNDING IN JUNE

Jaramillo picked up the subject once again and refocused the board’s attention on one of the more serious immediate issues facing the district. That is the deferral of cash payments from the state to the district in June.

That funding amounts to $9.5 million that now won’t arrive until July. Those funds are vital to make the payroll, a reminder that at the heart of the matter, public education is a business with overhead, including salaries, to be covered.

Jaramillo said that local borrowing options might have to be explored to cover the financial impact of the deferrals both immediately and in the future. In reviewing the 2020-2021 revenue projections slide, Jaramillo said that salaries for certified staff have dropped about $2 million from 2018-2019 and that, after a recent retirement incentive program for teachers and administrators that figure may come down some more.

Board President Patricia Rodriguez-Mackintosh wondered if there might be substantial savings in offering a similar retirement incentive program to non-certified employees. Jaramillo said that’s a “great idea” worth exploring noting that in normal times it would difficult to get that through. “But these are not normal times,” she said.

A point Jaramillo made early in the meeting seemed to resonate here. She said that in the Great Recession, staff cuts had to be made to facilitate the budget challenges. But in these days, with social distancing the new normal, staff cuts may be problematic if reductions in class sizes are in order.

Board Vice President Jane C. Anderson wondered what COVID-19 will do to the student population in the fall. Jaramillo said that this was one of the  great unknowns as it was not fully possible to determine how many parents would send their children back to in-person class when the time comes or how many would want to maintain distance learning. The cost ratios for each option as well as combining distance and on-site learning option are still being explored.  

FALL SEMESTER APPROACHES

The fall semester, presumably distance learning at this point, starts Aug. 12.

Going back to the budget certification process, Jaramillo said it was vital that the district create a sound financial plan.

“If we do nothing in deficit spending and we are in a qualified or negative budget reality, the county office of education will come back and insist on a budget reduction plan,” she said. The context here is that it was better to get ahead of this in a thoughtful way instead of having to react quickly to a mandate.

In concluding her comments, Jaramillo said that she was making a presentation the other day and someone said her remarks were “dire.”

“I said that we are fighting for the future of public education and that history will determine how we handle the questions of today. A group of kids will be impacted by what we decide today.”

She urged stakeholders to put pressure on state leaders to restore budget cuts saying that “mass reductions in our education system will not save the  economy.” 

The board will meet again on June 9 and hold a special meeting on June 30 to again consider the budget. The district hopes to have a budget document to share with stakeholders by June 23. 

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