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Close to Home: Santa Rosa school district’s financial challenges are not a crisis nor a surprise

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The Santa Rosa City Schools district is neither facing insolvency nor is it in crisis. Our district, as with all California districts, is simply wrestling with how best to meet its increased pension obligation while continuing to fairly compensate staff and provide quality education to our students.

The pension increase, signed into law in June 2014, more than doubled the district’s pension liability over a six- year period. As a result, the district’s annual contribution to our instructional staff’s pensions skyrocketed from 8.25 percent ($6 million) in 2014 to 19.1 percent (approximately $15.8 million) in 2020.

The increase to our classified staff’s pensions is even steeper. Between 2014 and 2019, the pension obligations will cost the district more than $28 million above what we would have paid under the former rates, which, for teachers, had been in place since 1990.

The pension increase is an issue the board has been publicly discussing and planning for since the budget report given in open session on June 11, 2014. After the initial 2014 report, the pension increases were specifically addressed in open session budget reports on Dec. 10, 2014, June 10, 2015, Dec. 9, 2015, March 9, 2016, June 8, 2016, June 22, 2016 and Dec. 14, 2016.

Between 2014 and 2016, the board focused on investing in staff capacity building and critical student programs. We gave our employees their first pay raise in eight years and increased contributions to their health plans. We provided valuable training to our staff that prepared them to transition to the new Common Core standards and better equipped them to teach English language learners.We instituted new programs and services to reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve school climate. And, as required by state law, we increased services to the students who need our help most — English Learners, children in foster care and low-income students.

In the summer of 2016, the board turned its budgetary attention to attacking the structural deficit resulting from the enormous unfunded pension liability. Superintendent Diann Kitamura made a multi-year fiscal planning presentation to the board in open session on Aug. 24. Committed to addressing the deficit transparently and collaboratively with staff, the district plan included the establishment of an ad-hoc Fiscal Recovery Committee, comprised of both labor and management staff, which reports to the board.

The committee has been meeting for several months, has identified and prioritized potential budget cuts and will finalize its recommendations over the next few weeks.

The district is working in earnest to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, while ensuring the efficient use of resources. In addition to reductions, the district has been working to increase funding by improving attendance and starting Saturday school classes that bring in dollars and provide enrichment opportunities for students.

On Jan. 22, The Press Democrat correctly reported that there was a recent accounting error in our budget (“Schools face grim budget outlook”). However, it is important that the public knows that the error was just that — a human mistake, that the error has not impacted the bottom line and that the district has hired a school financing expert to audit our accounting and oversee our multi-year fiscal planning. We are confident that we now have the financial expertise necessary to oversee our complicated budget.

Creating and approving budgets is a process, and we invite public participation. Our superintendent will be holding roundtable discussions in February, with dates and locations listed on our web site: www.srcs.k12.ca.us. Going forward, we will hold these discussions on a regular basis.

Members of the public also are always welcome at our board meetings and can watch them live, or later, on the Santa Rosa City Schools YouTube channel. As always, we encourage the public’s questions and input and appreciate its support.

Jenni Klose is president of the school board for the Santa Rosa City Schools District.

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