Fiscal doves at Del Mar’s bargaining table

Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton
My reason for attending my first Del Mar Union School District board meeting in nearly a year last week was an item on the Aug. 24 agenda to discuss, somewhat belatedly, the $500,000 cash bonuses given last fiscal year to all DMUSD employees using Federal Education Jobs Fund money.

After stories appeared in the June 30 and July 28 issues of this newspaper, public outcry over the misuse of the money triggered school board president Comischell Rodriguez to place the item on the August agenda.

Why this matter was not thoroughly discussed before, rather than after, the board voted last December to approve the giveaway is a question worth asking.
Rodriguez tried without success to blame the previous board, of which she was a member, for approving the bonuses. Since the issue was negotiated with the teachers’ union in the fall of 2010, she asked DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody why the school board vote was delayed until the new board’s first meeting in December 2010.

Peabody said the union needed time for its member teachers to vote on the matter. (Why the teachers were voting on it before the school board had approved it is another question worth asking.)

The board packet offered two explanations for giving each full-time employee $1,000 of federal money (totaling about $500,000) that was intended to be used to “save or create” teaching jobs.

The first explanation was that the district hired 12 new teachers during the 2010-2011 school year, and, according to Peabody’s report, “the expense of adding the teachers was slightly higher than the one-time funds provided by the Federal Jobs Fund.”

The implication of this argument was that none of the Jobs Fund money should be used for that purpose since the available money could only partially cover the cost for one year of the 12 teachers’ salaries.

That should leave you speechless. This is a perfect example of exactly what the money was intended for, whether it fully covered the salaries or not. It would have saved $500,000 from the general fund.

Peabody’s second point, which the board primarily focused on, concerned teachers’ complaints about rising health care costs. Peabody set up a false dichotomy, saying the district could either offer $1,000 to each employee to help cover rising health care costs, or the district could raise the health insurance cap for employees, which would mean a $500,000 annual, ongoing increase in district expenses.

“By providing one-time funds instead of an ongoing commitment, the district reduced its obligation by $500,269 a year,” Peabody’s board report reads.

But this assumes those were the only two options. How about not doing either? I didn’t see anyone holding a gun to Peabody’s head.
The district’s foundation is charged with asking/begging parents to donate money to save Extended Studies Curriculum (ESC) teachers’ jobs each year. This will be a task made all the more difficult after parents see that the district frittered away $500,000.

Besides using it for ESC, the money could have supported for one year the bulk of the salaries of those 12 new teachers. Or it could have been used to pump up the district’s reserves so other programs including low class sizes could be maintained. Or paid for librarians. Or classroom aides. Or science and technology lab aides. Or … or … or …?

Choosing a different path

The Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe school districts used their Federal Education Jobs Fund money to pay for the salaries of temporary teachers who would have been let go had it not been for this federal money.

Without the funding, Denise Stevenson, Rancho Santa Fe School District’s director of finance, said teachers would have been released, programs would have been eliminated, or class sizes increased.

The San Dieguito Union High School District used its $2.4 million in Federal Jobs Fund money to offset the general fund’s classroom teacher expense. By using the Jobs Fund money to substitute for money that would have come from the district’s general fund to pay for salaries, the district was able to free up unrestricted general fund money and avoid further budget cuts.

During a time of drastically slashed education budgets, Del Mar decided not to offset its declining general fund, choosing a different path.
Tim Asfazadour, DMUSD’s assistant superintendent of human resource services, said the goal of the Federal Jobs Fund was “to save the jobs of current employees,” and that the $1,000 per employee cash incentive saves employees’ jobs because “it keeps them from potentially leaving the district and looking for other jobs.”

Del Mar teachers were threatening to leave? Really? During a time when no district is hiring new teachers and no district has such a benefits-rich contract like Del Mar’s, there were worries about teachers quitting?

Peabody stood by his decision, saying, “I think it was a good thing to do for these families.”

Trustee Kristin Gibson rejected the option of using the money to pay teachers’ salaries for one year, saying, “The idea of investing in a person for just one year seems unwise and not very decent either.”

Who can follow this logic? My guess is that teachers on the chopping block wouldn’t mind working another year, even without future job security.

Gibson defended the decision, saying options were limited because the money could only be used for “compensation and benefits.”

What she neglected to mention is that “compensation and benefits” included employees other than teachers who provide support services at school sites, as well as “support services necessary to retain existing employees, to recall or rehire former employees, and to hire new employees.”

The funds by law could not be used on district office personnel. But because the school board approved giving $1,000 to every full-time employee in the district, not just those at school sites, employees at the district office, including Peabody, were paid with $21,000 from the general fund.

Fiscal hawks?

The two self-proclaimed Republican conservatives on the board, Scott Wooden and Doug Perkins, also defended the decision. Wooden said that applying a one-time use of funds in this way was preferable to the long-term “raise the cap” health care option that would incur a financial burden on the district every year.

Perkins also ignored this false dichotomy premise. Calling himself a “fiscal hawk,” Perkins said he looks for “ways to reduce ongoing expenses from year to year,” and the cash bonuses looked like one way to do this.

If Wooden and Perkins are examples of Republican fiscal hawks, then those birds have no beaks or claws.

The entire self-congratulating discussion reminded me of the popular quote: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Meanwhile, at the same board meeting, trustees reviewed a letter from the San Diego County Office of Education on the district’s 2011-2012 adopted budget.
“The district is projecting deficit spending in its unrestricted general fund of $1.51 million in 2010-2011 and $4.89 million in 2011-2012,” the letter reads.

There’s more. “The multi-year projection shows deficit spending in the unrestricted general fund of $6.09 million in 2012-2013 and $7.02 million in 2013-2014. With this level of deficit spending, the district would be able to meet the 3% [required] reserve in 2012-2013 but would have a negative ending balance of $5.07 million in 2013-2014.”

Granted, $500,000 in Federal Education Jobs Fund money to pay teachers’ salaries would help the general fund for only one year. But it beats not doing it, given the dire fiscal situation Del Mar is about to face.

The irresponsible allocation by the Del Mar Union School District of the Federal Education Jobs Funds during a financial crisis is a monumental misuse of taxpayer money and an embarrassment for the local community.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at:

Related posts:

  1. Del Mar school board addresses concerns over cash incentives decision
  2. Local school districts allocate millions in federal money differently
  3. Del Mar school district employees accept supplemental retirement plan
  4. Education fund’s mission hasn’t changed
  5. Where’s the outrage?

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Posted by Staff on Sep 1, 2011. Filed under Columns, Editorial Columns, Education Matters. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

14 Comments for “Fiscal doves at Del Mar’s bargaining table”

  1. concerned in CV

    Thank you, Marsha, for once again for clarifying to the public how the district is using our money. You have highlighted the unfortunate pattern that I've seen with DMUSD staff time and time again: the only thing they care about are their own jobs and welfare. In the current dire financial times, I find this downright scary. There's been a lot of criticism in the past of the Board micromanaging the district staff. But you know what? The staff of this district NEEDS to be micromanaged; otherwise they'll run right over all of us. I hope that the Board Members read your article carefully and not repeat the same mistakes in the future. More importantly, I hope more parents in the district start keeping tabs on what the Board is doing with our money and speak up!

  2. guest

    Has there been any explanation as to what they plan to do when the reserve money is gone? What is the consequence to going below the requisite 3% reserve?

    • DAW

      It can't by law go below that number. what more than likely would happen is the State/ County would reduce the reserve reqt's. Stay tuned.

      • guest

        Do you know what our budget would look like if we are out of reserves and still pay fair share? Would we be in the same boat as San Diego schools or still more $ per student than SDUSD?

  3. DisgustedInDelMar

    Big thanks to Marsha, once again, for shedding light on another important and distressing district problem.

    Many community members will recall that the district's Financial Task Force, made up of administration, board members (some of these same fiscal doves) and parents, came up with the brilliant idea of starting to spend down the reserves a couple years ago. Gee, let's see how that’s working out now.

    When this task force gave their final report at the time (soon after Peabody came on board), it was shocking to hear that in response to the district's mounting financial pressures, their number one recommendation was to spend down the district's reserves. Huh, really? Even in the best of times, that's a pretty sketchy strategy, but here we were in very bad economic times, with all signs indicating that things were only going to get worse. The evidence was there in black and white, but somehow the task force, administration and board felt they could ignore it. Anyone could see that the district was being hit with a triple whammy of bad financial forecasts: 1) decreasing/flat local property tax revenues from a declining real estate market, contrasted by many prior years of double digit increases, 2) increasingly deep cuts to state education dollars, and 3) increasing givebacks through the "fair share" assessments required from basic aid district like DMUSD. Hmm, anyone else see a viable reason to confidently spend down our reserves in times like these?

    Time to reverse course immediately and come up with a Plan B before it's too late! And while you're at it, please make sure the next financial brainstorming doesn't inadvertently involve any unnecessary gifts to the teachers union.

    I wonder if any of those task force members would now categorize their "spend the reserves" strategy as a genuinely solid financial plan, but unfortunately, they’ll never take responsibility. As we know, several of the financial doves were involved in making that recommendation, as well as many parents whose sole goal seemed to not to be the overall preservation of dollars for education but rather the preservation of Del Mar Hills school. Unfortunately, starting with faulty decision-making by the financial task force, and greatly exacerbated by weak leadership on the part of the superintendent and board, the district's financial situation is now on a very disturbing downward trend.

    Anyone paying attention? Let's not let this get any worse! Superintendent and Board, please get some real financial experts and leaders involved who aren't afraid of making tough calls in order to keep our district financially sound. Most community members want you to spend district dollars where they count – on education!

    • DAW

      Well some spending of the reserves made sense – it was about 15 million at its peak in a district with an annual budget of 42 mil – that's over 30% and way too high for any reserves. County law requires 3% – 1% currently but in general 3%. That seems too little but if they were spending the money on non-recurring or one-time funding then it makes sense to bring the reserves down to say 10%. Of course right now we're in the situation where the reserves will be exhausted by 13/14 and large changes, most likely huge layoffs, will have to be enacted next year in the 2012/13 school year to make 2013/14 livable.

    • DXM

      "As we know, several of the financial doves were involved in making that recommendation, as well as many parents whose sole goal seemed to not to be the overall preservation of dollars for education but rather the preservation of Del Mar Hills school"

      You are so right about that. What is the population of that school this year? 235 students? Why are we paying to have it staffed with a principal and admin staff when those kids could be absorbed elsewhere?

  4. richardrider

    Most CA school districts are run primarily for district employees. Students are certainly a priority — just not the TOP priority.

    Apparently in the Del Mar district, the kids are — at best — an afterthought.

  5. Guest

    As a parent of a 4th grader in the DMUSD, I want to echo thanks for this story. To me, the contrast in how other school districts spent the same funding is the most interesting and compelling point to the story. It makes the teacher retention argument seem all the more tone deaf and insulting to one's intelligence. ____It’s really a shame because we think the principal at our daughter's school has her head and heart in the right place and does a fantastic, tireless job. I’m sure that (privately at least) she would have advocated for using the money to save teaching jobs, enrichment programs, etc. ____We have given generously to DMESF in years past. However, this latest example of questionable decision-making has caused us to re-consider our priorities. There are plenty of other worthy causes, and we will be re-allocating charitable contributions away from DMESF until the district can can demonstrate it is ready to behave in a way that is responsive the needs of its most important stakeholders, who are the kids.

    • DXM

      "We have given generously to DMESF in years past. However, this latest example of questionable decision-making has caused us to re-consider our priorities. There are plenty of other worthy causes"

      While I understand the anger, the fact remains that your child is the most worthy cause there is. If we stop giving to the DMSEF, then our kids will stop getting music, art, science, and tech. PE will remain in some form due to state requirements.

      Can you say rock and a hard place?

    • guest

      I wish it was so simple as to say "i'll keep my money." Trust me I feel the same, however in the end you only end up hurting the kids. It is my fear our entire ESC program will be gone by 13/14 unless there is a big change in Sacramento. I think the district pays roughly half of the cost to cover prep time. Either that will go or we will have larger class sizes. I just don't see a way around it.

      I do think Peabody is being too quick to exhaust the reserves though. He can retire when the reserves are gone and we are left to pick up the pieces.

      • DAW

        District by the teacher contract has to provide prep time for some teachers which turns into ESC teachers – they have to fund a set amount which, recently, has been about 1/2 of the program. That could very well change if the teacher contract changes. There seems to be a feeling among many in the District that the budget crisis isn't really bad and they are sitting pretty good – not quit sure where this comes from as I read it as being very bad – especially by 13/14. Yeah I suspect higher class sizes are definitely coming. The fat has already been trimmed from most non-teaching positions, the only thing left is to reduce the teachers which equals higher class sizes.

  6. DAW

    Only one person showed up at the Board mtg and that one person was the ONLY person to write a formal concern to the Board. It does NO good to sit back and complain on these blogs – if you want to make a difference get involved. Get off your hind quarters and show up at meetings or at least, at the absolute minimum, let the Board know your concerns. Posting here alone does NO good!!!

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