PRJUSD begins new year with celebration

The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District board meeting opened with officials and trustees recognizing the accomplishments of students with perfect scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) testing. (Photo by Brian Williams)

PASO ROBLES — The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District Board Room was packed again, but this time the crowd was jovial as trustees rang in 2019 by celebrating student accomplishments and welcoming interim Superintendent Julian Crocker.

Lately, it’s been pretty common for PRJUSD school board meetings to reach standing-room-only capacity. But those meetings were somber occasions as the room was filled with unhappy people wanting answers for the District’s financial troubles and subsequent severance package for former Superintendent Chris Williams, who resigned in December.

Crocker is no stranger to the district or the county, having been superintendent of both PRJUSD and the San Luis Obispo Office of Education during his long career.

Crocker was happy to be back and said there were three things he would be focusing on.

First to “verify the existing fiscal plan for stability, ensure that is followed and that we are on track to rebuild our required reserves,” secondly support instructional staff and students, and finally, “to work with you (trustees) to select the next superintendent,” Crocker said.

PRJUSD is in the midst of recovering from seeing its reserve fall to .96 percent at the end of the 2017-18 budget cycle and now finds itself needing to make $2.9 million in cuts over the next two years. The state mandates district’s of PRJUSD’s size have a 3 percent reserve and when it falls below the requirement a series of actions are initiated, including working with a fiscal adviser and bringing in a fiscal crisis assistance management team. The team was onsite this week.

Three budget input sessions are scheduled for Monday, Jan. 15 — 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.; 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.; and 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. — at the District Office Board Room. The sessions are open to the public. Information on the current budget will be available and people will have the opportunity to give input on possible fiscal reductions and or savings.

Due to the District’s finances, the SLO County Office of Education took on Crocker’s salary.

Crocker was elected as County Superintendent of Schools in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002 and 2006. He was superintendent of PRJUSD for nine years prior to running for county office. He retired in 2015.

The school board meeting opened with the District and its trustees recognizing the accomplishments of the lower grade students with perfect scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System. The CAASPP tests students in grades 3-8 and 11th-graders. The CAASPP System replaced the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program.

Each student came forward to receive a certificate, shake hands with District officials and trustees and took a commemorative photo with their parents or guardians and Crocker.

The upper-grade students will be recognized at a later board meeting.

Following that feel-good moment, Paso Robles High School’s Crimson newsmagazine staff was honored for winning Best of Show in the newspaper tabloid category, as well as numerous other individual awards at the JEA/NSPA National Journalism Convention in Chicago in early November.

After the student recognition, the room nearly emptied and the meeting shifted to public comment. Amy Grace, a current teacher in the District, read a statement that outlined the impact of past fiscal troubles in the District on her family, what the current issues could bring and to not shut teachers out of the recovery process.

“To the board, I implore you to please involve teachers in the planning process,” Grace said. “No one is better at stretching a dollar than a teacher on a budget. I remind all of you once again that this situation was not of our doing, why must teachers and staff repeatedly pay for mistakes of an administration that cannot manage a budget.”

Two people again expressed their displeasure with Williams receiving severance. One man again said he believes some trustees colluded to give Williams the settlement and one woman again threatened the District with the possibility of litigation.

“The last time I spoke here I suggested that there would likely be legal action taken by citizens or a group of citizens to stop any payments to Mr. Williams as well as to look into what appeared to be probable ethical misconduct by the trustees who supported the initial payout,” said former PRJUSd teacher Dorian Baker. “This is not off the table.”

Speakers also questioned and formally requested information on the status of the 4A Foundation, which was set up by Williams as a way to “support our students’ continual improvement and success by providing funding through community investment and partnerships.”

During board member reports, trustee Chris Arend used his time to speak about the severance deal with Williams.

“I looked into it … there was no justification,” he said. “I won’t go into the details of how he (Williams) basically bamboozled this settlement out of the district, but it was an outrageous situation.”

In other matters, the awarding of a contract for the Flamson Middle School Classroom Addition was pulled from the agenda; approved an MOU with LINK; approved a service agreement with Republic Elevator Company; and approved classified staff salary schedule adjustments.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 22.

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