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May 21, 2019
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School district leaders tackle 1.9m deficit

By: Lanny Lowery
February 22, 2019

The New Year began for the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District with some bad news from the Sonoma County Office of Education:  based on its First Interim Report, the school district was facing a $1,900,000 deficit.  A mere two months before, Interim Superintendent Tony Roehrick had announced how pleased he was to begin work with a school district that had solid financial standing.  

Dr. Roehrick stated during the first week in Nov., “Fiscally, the district has been very well managed and has been able to thoughtfully navigate the recent recession.”  What had changed?

The county letter clearly indicated that student population increase was over- estimated by 83 students and the district lost another 57 students that had been enrolled in the district the previous year.  The budget that had been prepared, dispatched and accepted by the county was premised upon 140 students that did not appear this past fall.

How did that impact the budget?  Districts receive money based on Average Daily Attendance.  If each of the missing 140 students generates an average of $8,500, the district would lack approximately $1.2 million for this year’s budget that was planned last spring.

Two questions come immediately to mind.  When should the district have known about this shortfall?  What is the cause of the other $700,000 shortfall?  In part, the last question is answered by the Special Education’s increased costs of more than $850,000, according to the business manager, Robert Marical.

The district reported the shortfall in Nov. 2018.  Someone would have known about the missing 140 students during the first ten days of the school year.  Every teacher knows about the ten-day count where immediate attendance has always been the number one priority.  At the end of each day, some district official would have noticed the significant loss of attendance and this would have been dealt with in Aug., not Jan. and Feb.

Superintendents and business managers come and go:  Robert Haley announced that he was leaving the district in Sept., and Anne Barron, the former business manager, retired in June.  It took a few months for the new business manager, Robert Marical, to discover these budget problems.  Once discovered, he and Superintendent Roehrick began to deal with these issues in a public and positive manner.  

On Jan. 9, 2019, Mary Downey, Deputy Superintendent, Business Service, and Shelley Stiles, Director, External Fiscal Services, sent a four-page letter from the Sonoma County Office of Education stating that the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District’s First Interim Report for the 2018-2019 fiscal year had been accepted as “Qualified.”  The letter goes on to say: “The Qualified Certification is assigned to any district that may be unable to meet its financial obligations for the remainder of the current fiscal year or two subsequent fiscal years.”

Six days later, at the Jan. 15, 2019, School Board Meeting, Roehrick and Marical reported the letter to the public.  No time for hand wringing, hair pulling and finger pointing, the school district, following the lead of its new school board trustees, outlined a plan for a budget committee to meet during the next four months to deal with the problems.  This committee will meet at least ten times before June.

Superintendent Roehrick believed that this year’s budget could be sustained through the reserve fund.  He does not look for any significant cuts to be made.  However, conservative spending will be the district’s guiding thought as everyone will apply a simple question to any purchase:  “Do you need it?  Do you need it now?”  Over the next month, the district must examine needs for next year and how budget spending can be reduced.

More planning during Feb. as there will be four additional special board meetings:  The first will be to set goals and decide where the district will want to be in five years.  The second will involve the superintendent search.  There will also be a meeting to review facilities projects.  Another meeting will be held to review the Brown Act, a one hundred-twenty-page document or law that tells how school boards operate and how trustees participate.

The facilities project review meeting, to be held Feb. 26, is of most immediate concern to members of the community.  Once the deficit was revealed, some important projects were postponed such as the field work for the new Technology High School at Waldo Rohnert.  

School Board President Leffler Brown stated that this public meeting would openly review projected expenditures.  While this money would come out of bond funds, and would not be directly related to the deficit problems connected with the school budget, problems have become complex because the planning of projects was based not just on the 2014 and 2016 bonds but also on the premise that a third bond would be passed in 2018.  The prudent task of the school board and the district leaders is to assess the affordability of various projects as well as to prioritize expenditures.

Neither Superintendent Roehrick nor Chief Financial Officer Marical stepped into their positions knowing about these problems.  As soon as they discovered them, they brought the issues to light with the positive determination to deal with them in a manner that will have minimal impact upon the students and the classroom.

All five members of the newly seated school board have committed themselves to work as a team to solve these problems.  Everyone sees how the problem occurred and looks at that understanding only as a way to avoid problems such as this in the future.  Transparency, problem solving, and determination characterize how the trustees and the school district officials are dealing with these problems now.