The months-long school budget process, always arduous, has a new wrinkle this year: the COVID-19 pandemic. Even while economic and health conditions change daily, both Coastside public school districts are working to settle funding for next year.
Last week, Cabrillo Unified School District presented a $28.7 million budget, which will be adjusted and ultimately approved by July 1. And, on Thursday, leaders at La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District are scheduled to adopt theirs, coming out at just over $6 million.
Both districts are juggling the ever-changing economic circumstances and state budget. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Monday he may be able to preserve state funding for K-12 schools after earlier budget drafts showed a 10 percent cut statewide for schools. For both CUSD and LHPUSD, that change could make a world of difference.
After a history of deficit spending, LHPUSD Chief Business Officer Erica Hays said the South Coast district will have a balanced budget next year, but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, it may not last.
Hays said the budget — about 85 percent of which is going to staff salaries — is based on conservative assumptions about COVID-19, state funding and other revenue sources like lottery taxes and health care costs. But she said the district does have a little bit of wiggle room.
“We’re a little more insulated than other districts because our revenue comes from property taxes,” Hays said. “Right now, we’re just playing cautious.”
Leaders at both districts are doing whatever they can to best prepare for the upcoming crisis. At Cabrillo, that means digging the district out of a hole. Although it received a positive certification for last year’s budget, the district has a history of budget problems and deficit spending. That could get worse amid dwindling revenue sources, declining enrollment and rising costs. At LHPUSD, preparation looks like maintaining its cushion in case of disaster.
But not everyone is on board with the conservative approach. Pescadero High School teacher Randy Vail spoke during public comment asking for a breakdown between administrative, certificated and classified staff salaries. He also noted that the district’s reserves — at more than 26 percent — are notably high as compared to the state-mandated 3 percent and the 17 percent recommended by the California Department of Education.
“Isn’t this like leaving money on the table?” Vail asked.
In contrast, the budget proposed by Cabrillo keeps around 6 percent in reserves, with projections for the next two years consuming that entirely. It’s typical that larger districts have smaller reserves, but Cabrillo is also drawing criticism for keeping too much in a rainy day fund.
This month, negotiations with the teachers union broke down after Superintendent Sean McPhetridge did not meet demands for a raise paid back to the 2019-20 school year. Union representatives say the district has enough saved up in its reserves to make up the gap and stay solvent, but McPhetridge is wary of adding another line item.
But the effects of COVID-19 aren’t just about weathering an incoming economic crisis. The changes brought about by the pandemic come fall — like daily temperature checks and an increased need for technology and sanitization — come at a cost to both districts.
School leaders are already thinking about setting aside money for distance learning. LHPUSD is setting aside funds for remote learning technology and is considering purchasing new vans to transport kids to school as an alternative to the current transportation contract. Cabrillo is planning ahead too.
“As we look into the reopening of schools, we are also realizing that we are going to have to spend,” CUSD’s CBO Jesús Contreras said. “Our expenses will increase.”
Regardless of changing economic and health circumstances, the districts are up against a strict July 1 deadline. Each will convene one final time in the coming week to finalize and approve their budgets.