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Santa Barbara School District Puts Freeze on Spending, Considers Unifying Districts

The school board will examine the unification proposal Tuesday, which officials say could result in an additional $6 million in annual revenue

It’s déjà vu for the Santa Barbara School District. Two years after declaring a spending freeze amid fears of millions of dollars in midyear cuts, Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith has once again announced the district is freezing all general fund spending and may delay filling some vacant positions.

The recent interim financial report shows the district should have enough in the bank for this year, but it will need to cut about $5.6 million to keep the minimum reserve levels going into 2011-12.

The district’s announcement is largely word-for-word with January 2009’s warning of economic hardship, as Smith said that in the face of challenging times, “we will continue to plan, and not panic, as we watch the state’s budgetary process unfold.”

All employees will be paid and “mission critical” items such as toilet paper will be purchased, but fiscal services director Meg Jette said the freeze should make everyone think twice about spending any miscellaneous state money.

“We have to slow down the spending for cash flow purposes and for budget,” she said. “People just think, ‘I’ve got this money here so I’m going to buy something.’”

How long the spending freeze will last is anyone’s guess.

“Well, it depends on how well everyone does,” Jette said, adding that even if everyone cuts back, she’s guessing the freeze will last “indefinitely” until the state budget has been resolved. But on Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown issued his proposed budget cuts, which left out K-12 education because they’ve already endured the brunt of cuts.

Nonstate money from donations and other sources are not affected by the freeze.

The district is also looking at ways to increase revenue, and Tuesday’s school board meeting will examine the proposal of unifying the elementary and secondary districts. The idea has been kicked around for years but looks better than ever given the economic benefits.

Combining the two — but no other feeder elementary school districts — could result in $6 million per year in additional revenues. The elementary district has bounced in and out of basic aid funding status because of cuts in state funding and unifying the two districts would put both into revenue limit funding.

The districts report to the state as one district now anyway, and Jette said the move would officially make them one district.

“The only reason the elementary district is in basic aid is because of the deficit from the state of California that they imposed on us,” she said. “It wasn’t a good way to go into basic aid.”

If the Santa Barbara school board gets the ball rolling on unification, a public hearing will be held and the county superintendent would have to approve the move.

Q&A with Fiscal Services Director Meg Jette

Question: Is there a budget freeze on all district expenditures? If so, what is the status of purchase orders that have been processed before this happened? What will happen to requisitions that are not purchase orders yet?

Answer: Purchase requisitions and purchase orders in process as of Jan. 5 will be reviewed by accounting and then processed by purchasing. The person making the requisition may receive a call requesting more information or asking if the order is essential and/or necessary. Purchase requisitions funded from unrestricted funds, including unrestricted lottery, and state categorical funding received after Jan. 13 would be returned unless deemed mission critical.

Q: What types of expenditures are not frozen?

A: Unrestricted expenditures that must be made to ensure the health and safety of students and staff, as well as necessary school and operational supplies, are not frozen. This includes supplies such as copy paper and toilet paper. This is commonly referred to as “mission critical.”

Q: Is there a hiring freeze?

A: Yes. The superintendent’s cabinet has elected not to fill many vacant positions and is only filling new vacancies on the basis of the position being “mission critical” and/or in conformance with collective bargaining agreements and/or state or federal law.

Q: Will all categorical funding be frozen?

A: The expenditures of state-funded categorical funding are frozen (e.g., SIP, EIA, GATE). Expenditures from federal categorical funds are not (e.g., Title I, Title II).

Q: Are travel and conference funds frozen?

A: Yes, if the funding is from the unrestricted general fund or a state-funded categorical program; no, if funding is from a federal categorical program.

Q: Are donation funds frozen?

A: No. Donation funds received for a specific purchase/project can be spent on that purchase/project so long as there is cash in the account.

Q: If a field trip has been planned and approved, can staff move forward with the trip?

A: Yes, if a field trip was approved before Jan. 5. For future requests, approval by the associate superintendent of education will be required. Staff members with specific questions should contact the associate superintendent of education.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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