Saturday, June 24 , 2017, 7:38 pm | Fair 67º

 
 
 
 

Hope School District Grapples with $800K Budget Shortfall at Town Hall Meeting

District faces cuts to deal with budget deficit, which could include cutting hours and reducing the number of teacher's aids

Hope School District board member Chris Gallo talks about how the district ended up with a $800,000 budget shortfall. Click to view larger
Hope School District board member Chris Gallo talks about how the district ended up with a $800,000 budget shortfall. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

A few hundred parents and school district staff crowded Hope Elementary School’s multi-purpose room Monday night to find out why Santa Barbara’s Hope School District is experiencing what its Board of Trustees has called “an extreme budget shortfall for at least the coming year.”

The district, which operates under a roughly $10 million annual budget, has an immediate shortfall of about $386,000, board member Tony Winterbauer told the room.

That number balloons to roughly $800,000 when the need to restore the district’s 4-percent reserve fund is figured in, he said.

District parents found out about the shortfall in a 2,500-word open letter the board sent out on Sept. 12.

The Hope School District teaches roughly 1,000 students in Hope, Monte Vista and Vieja Valley elementary schools in northwestern Santa Barbara.

The full scope of the crisis was not understood until a month ago, board member Chris Gallo said, when checks began to bounce.

The multi-year problem really began compounding, he said, when the district’s former business manager “missed a critical update” from the county regarding the district’s special education budget numbers.

The district, Gallo said, also inadvertently helped increase its own contribution to county special education services.

Per state mandate, the county’s school districts must provide special education services to children who are not yet of school age. Those services have traditionally been contracted out to the Santa Barbara County Education Office and paid for by the districts.

After a vote by the county’s districts a few years back to allow them to quickly opt out of county programming, a number of districts left to provide and pay for their own in-house preschool special education services, Gallo explained.

The SBCEO’s services didn’t shrink in proportion with the number of students who left them, meaning Hope and the other districts who remained began shouldering much larger slices of the total cost of the county’s services, Gallo said.

Monte Vista teacher Rob Regan floated the idea of consolidating the district’s 1,000 students into two schools as a potential long-term solution. Click to view larger
Monte Vista teacher Rob Regan floated the idea of consolidating the district’s 1,000 students into two schools as a potential long-term solution. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

The Hope district representative in that vote, Gallo admitted, probably didn’t realize the financial ramifications of voting for it.

The district has filed the required one-year notice with the county of its intent to withdraw from its preschool special education services in favor of its own services, said Jestin St. Peter, the district’s special education coordinator.

The district has already hired staff to take over the job, he said, and though some of its preschool special education services are still handled by the county, the district is beginning to provide more if its own, saving it $300,000 over the next two years, he said.

According to the board’s letter, software budget issues and underestimated payroll numbers have also contributed to the current shortfall. A three-year raise agreement with the teachers’ union made the situation worse since that raise was based on incorrect budget projections, the board said in the community letter.

Board members also talked about state and federal funding and recent cuts that were budgeted by the former business manager and never implemented. 

Throughout the town hall, much of the blame for the miscalculated and overlooked numbers landed at the feet of the district’s former business manager, Sandra Doria, who retired less than a year ago.

The former superintendent, Daniel Cooperman, also received flack for the budget crisis. Neither, however, were mentioned by name Monday night.

At a town hall meeting, new Superintendent Anne Hubbard said no one will be happy about impending cuts to deal with the district’s shortfall. Click to view larger
At a town hall meeting, new Superintendent Anne Hubbard said no one will be happy about impending cuts to deal with the district’s shortfall.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

“None of us look forward to making any of these cuts; There are no good cuts,” Winterbauer said. “Yes, there is a smoking gun. We made a significant error. Our business manager made a $750,000 error over three years. It’s not something that you can recover from.”

Among the potential cuts, said Anne Hubbard, who took over as superintendent this summer, are reduced hours for a variety of positions, eliminating or reviewing certain stipends and contracts, and reducing the number of teachers’ aids — the latter an unpopular option with the audience.

“I feel extremely confident in myself that this will not happen again,” Hubbard said, though later adding, “I guarantee you, no one is going to be happy” about the impending cuts.

An option that was popular with both the audience and board, though, is rebuilding the Hope Education Foundation, which board clerk Kristi Newton said could tap into a lot of private money if hard work is put into establishing it.

The county is requiring the district, Hubbard said, to show 1 percent positive reserve this year — or $368,000 worth of cuts by next June — and the full 4 percent reserve restored next year.

Hubbard said that the district has until Oct. 7 to incorporate public input, decide where and how to cut, turn those decisions into a proper budget book, have the board approve the book and finally submit it to the county.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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