Portola Valley schools face $2 million in budget cuts | June 13, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Schools - June 13, 2012

Portola Valley schools face $2 million in budget cuts

by Renee Batti

In the face of an unexpected fiscal crisis that came to light in April, Portola Valley school district officials are proposing a budget for the next fiscal year that cuts $2.1 million in spending, eliminates programs such as summer school and K-5 Spanish, increases class size at several grade levels, and has no reserves.

Even with these severe measures, the Portola Valley School District would end the 2012-13 school year with a balance of only $46,871, according to a report reviewed by the school board and jittery parents, teachers and other staff during a June 6 board meeting.

The proposed budget will come back to the school board at its June 20 meeting. A final budget must be approved by the end of June.

Meanwhile, the San Mateo County Board of Education on June 6 unanimously approved a $300,000 bridge loan to the school district — money that could be tapped if the district's cash runs out before June 30.

The loan must be paid back by September 30. Interest will be at the rate the money would have earned on deposit with the county treasurer's office, which changes from month to month but has been running at about 1 percent, according to Anne Campbell, the county superintendent of schools.

Board members were already struggling to address a projected deficit of about $854,000 for the next school year when auditors informed them in late April of more fiscal uncertainty due to bookkeeping irregularities and the possible misappropriation of funds during the tenure of Tim Hanretty as superintendent. Mr. Hanretty resigned in January after the county District Attorney's Office launched an investigation into alleged misdeeds stemming from his earlier work with the Woodside Elementary School District.

Several community meetings have been held to address the fiscal crisis, but understanding the magnitude of the problem has been a slow process, with figures changing frequently as auditors "keep finding things buried under rocks," according to Mark Bonnett, the district's interim finance official.

The latest estimates are that the district will end this fiscal year on June 30 with a $1.65 million deficit. With only $11.4 million in revenue, the district is expected to spend $13.08 million this fiscal year, the latest audit figures show.

The proposed 2012-13 budget outlines a spending plan of about $10.97 million, with projected revenues of just over $11 million.

In addition to summer school and K-5 Spanish, the proposed budget assumes cuts that include: reduction or elimination of contract technology staff for an $84,000 savings; a 25 percent cut in the facilities maintenance budget for a $25,000 savings; a 15 percent cut in all supply budgets for a $58,300 savings; a reduction in the district office staff to save $30,000; and elimination of $25,000 in funding for the traditional eighth-grade trip.

The district will "work with community representatives" to either restructure the eighth-grade trip or find alternative funding, according to a report by interim Superintendent Carol Piraino.

Ms. Piraino said in an earlier interview that the district is also talking with leaders of the nonprofit Portola Valley Schools Foundation about increasing the amount of privately donated funds the foundation gives the schools each year.

The district will try to make further cuts that would require agreement with employee unions. These recommended cuts include a salary freeze to save $110,032; elimination of up to 10 school days to save $300,000; and elimination of the summer technology institute for teachers to save $28,000.

At the June 6 meeting, a number of parents and teachers pressed board members for explanations about how the financial mess developed without their notice, clarifications about what cuts the educational program would suffer, and plans for policy changes that would ensure that such a crisis would be prevented in the future.

Although board members initially were generally silent in response to questions directed at them, deferring to staff, board member Ray Villareal at one point told the group that "for all of us on the board, it was pretty awful to learn" about the unexpected funding shortfall. He acknowledged that board members realize "we haven't collectively done the job we needed to do."

Speakers challenged board members for not being transparent about plans for program cuts and other matters related to the fiscal crisis, and encouraged district officials to talk more openly with the public, especially if they expect the community and school foundation to help staunch the district's unexpected financial wound.

Mr. Villareal and other board members agreed that they need to keep the school community better apprised about developments. But they noted that, after the financial problems were revealed, the board and district "went into triage mode" to try to figure out just what happened, and to ensure that classroom education and day-to-day school operations wouldn't be affected by the crisis.


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