PRJUSD to cut $2.9M over next two years

From left to right, newcomers Chris Arend, Stephanie Ulibarri, and Lance Gannon, and incumbent Tim Gearhart are sworn into the governing board during Tuesday’s Paso Robles Joint Unified School District meeting. (Photos by Brian Williams)

New board sworn in; interim leader named

PASO ROBLES — The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District took a giant step forward in cleaning up its finances, a $1.3 million step to be exact that will go toward closing the gap of a projected $2.9 million shortfall in the coming years.

With approval from the newly seated board of trustees during a 70-minute closed session Tuesday night, Dec. 11, staff was given the OK to move forward with $1.3 million in various “reductions” that if successful will get the District closer to the state-mandated 3 percent reserve and in doing so “fiscal solvency.” The entire governing board meeting, including the closed session, lasted more than five hours.

Trustee Chris Bausch spoke to the difficult decisions Tuesday night and of those in the future for the board.

“None of this is going to be easy,” said trustee Chris Bausch. “None of this is going to be popular. But it’s absolutely imperative that we get this done.”

Since this action was in closed session, the details of the cuts do not have to be disclosed to the public, and in this instance, they were not. Newly elected board president Joel Peterson simply reported the agenda item received trustee approval, 7-0.

Trustees later in open session also passed a resolution, 7-0, confirming the district’s commitment to fiscal solvency. A commitment that involves the board and the district contending with a nearly $3 million budget shortfall — $2.1 million in 2019-20 and $800,000 in 2020-21 — according to multi-year budget projections.

The District has a deadline of Feb. 28, 2019, to come up with a plan for dealing with the shortfall in 2019-20. With the District set to move on $1.3 million in reductions, all that remains is $800,000.

“This is a good step for you to move forward as a District and I appreciate your movement and taking responsibility for this,” said San Luis Obispo County Office of Education Superintendent Jim Brescia.

The District is in the midst of recovering from a drop in its general fund reserve to .96 percent at the conclusion of the 2017-18 budget cycle. The reserve falling below the required amount triggered a series of actions and deadlines for the District to undertake and meet, including budget oversight by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education and contracting with a Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team just to name a few.

Brad Pawlowski, Chief Business Officer of PRJUSD, provided the board with the highs and lows of the 2018-19 budget during the first interim report that covers the District’s expenses and revenues between July and October.

The first interim report provided a snapshot of where the district was financially as of Oct. 31 and also includes multi-year financial projections covering the 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets, Pawlowski said.

One bright spot in the report was that the District’s reserve had improved to 1.73 percent in the first quarter. However, the positive movement in the reserve will not last, Pawlowski said, as the district is on pace for negative spending of roughly $1 million and a negative-0.78 percent reserve by 2020-21 if no cuts are made.

Even with their commitment to $2.9 million in reductions, the District still will fall short of the state-required reserve, Pawlowski said following the meeting.

“We’ll finish the 19-20 and 20-21 budgets with about a 2 percent reserve,” he said.

The next interim report will be presented at the March 12 board meeting, Pawlowski said.

New Board Seated

Following the swearing-in of newcomers Chris Arend, Stephanie Ulibarri, and Lance Gannon, and incumbent Tim Gearhart by Brescia, the board went right to work on the agenda that included the tough decisions on the budget and beginning the search for a new superintendent. Ulibarri was voted by the board to be its secretary.

Outgoing trustees Field Gibson, Kathleen Hall, and Matt McClish were thanked for their service.

Brescia took on the duties normally handled by the District superintendent at the meeting after the sudden resignation of Chris Williams on Dec. 6. Williams, although still employed at the District technically until Dec. 21, chose not to attend the board meeting.

“It was a personal decision on his part,” Brescia said, following Tuesday’s meeting.

Trustees directed Brescia to assist in the search for an interim superintendent for the District. Brescia was confident an interim would be in place in January.

Brescia made it a point to address the settlement agreement between the District and Williams that according to one member of the public was $250,000.

According to the contract, the maximum severance Williams can receive would be a year’s salary — $214,833.

Brescia did not confirm there was a payout, only that the “contract of exiting employees as well as any type of settlement agreement is reviewed by legal counsel and then again reviewed by the county, those procedures are followed in all cases.”

Brescia also addressed the possibility of a grand jury investigation involving PRJUSD saying that over the course of his time as an administrator at the district and county level he’d been “asked to speak to the grand jury multiple times. We sign a piece of paper that says we can’t discuss it. That’s all I can say about that.”

Brescia reminded the board that in order to be successful they will need to work together.

“I have belief in you that you can work together as a collective body for the good of the community in a positive and productive manner as stewards of the public trust,” Brescia said before adding a quote from Dr. Seuss. “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself, any, direction, you choose.”

Interim Named

It didn’t take Brescia long to find an interim superintendent. Less than 24 hours after the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, Julian Crocker was named the interim superintendent of the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.

Brescia made the announcement Wednesday afternoon. The board voted, 7-0, to bring Crocker onboard.

Crocker is a former superintendent of the Paso Robles school district and retired San Luis Obispo County Superintendent of Schools.

Board Benefits

In another agenda item related to the budget, trustees voted 6-1 — Joan Summers voted no — to maintain board member health and welfare benefits. Despite running campaigns championing fiscal responsibility, Ulibarri, Gannon, and Arend all voted to keep the benefits.

The yearly cost to the District if all seven board members participated in the program would be $76,517 — almost 10 percent of the $800,000 shortfall, trustee Joan Summers said. Currently, only five members have elected to participate in bringing the total to $54,655.

“We are trying to keep the cuts away from the kids, from the classroom, the teachers,” said trustee Summers. “Our part-time employees don’t get this benefit and they work 6 or 6.5 hours a day, so I felt pretty strongly that as a board we should step up to the plate when we are asking administrators, we are cutting positions and going to other things.”

The board overwhelmingly said this was a good perk for board members to receive.

Trustees approved their meeting calendar for 2019 and set Tuesday, Jan. 8, as their first regular meeting of the new year.

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