Task force: School district budget has silver lining

The Del Mar Union School District's budget situation is not all doom and gloom, according to members of the Financial Task Force.

The group held three public meetings (that drew a total of 12 people) last week to explain the confusing process of building a school budget — mostly around assumption. They also gave their suggestions on how the district can handle its reserves in the face of a projected $2.5 million deficit.

Task force member Beth Westburg said that while the district is forecasting a $2.5 million shortage, there is a possibility they could end up with a surplus as they have in years past.

"I think we should be more positive about what we have," Westburg said.

The district has $11.2 million in reserves and that figure has increased over the last few years —in 2004, it was at $5.7 million.

Chair Jonathan Flam said the current reserves are at 27 percent of expenditures and the task force recommends a balance of not less than 22 percent or greater than 30 percent. Once the district gets below that $8.5 million threshold, then they should make meaningful resource cuts but not before that.

Flam said with the current reserve level, the board has the flexibility to run a deficit until they actually have a deficit. They are aiming to avoid building up the reserves at the cost of the children's education.

"Don't make cuts based on what may or may nor happen," said Flam. "Don't call the fire department until there's a fire."

Property tax represents 33 percent of DMUSD revenue and it is very difficult to forecast, Westburg said. Using a very complicated formula, the San Diego County Tax Assessor's Office provides estimates to the district throughout the year on what the property tax numbers could be and they don't get final payment until August.

Since the district must finalize its budget by June, they have to use estimates. So far the district is anticipating a 2 percent decrease in property tax districtwide — although assessments are up a little in Del Mar.

"We're still very lucky because we do collect a lot of property tax," Westburg said.

New construction also adds to property tax revenue and there are homes being built by Sage Canyon and Ocean Air Schools, but trustee Doug Perkins said the district won't see the new construction reflected in the numbers for about 18 months.

The "game changer" in the budget is the fair-share contribution. The state has required that basic aid school districts give a "fair share" to help support what is being taken away from revenue limit districts. Basic aid districts, like Del Mar, get to keep their property tax revenue in addition to funding from the state.

This year, the district may have to pay $1.5 million and that number could grow to $1.7 million in the following year. The trouble is, like the property taxes, it is tough to forecast the amount as the numbers change constantly and the state usually doesn't finalize its budget until August.

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