Fiscal doves at Del Mar’s bargaining table

Marsha Sutton
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: SuttComm@san.rr.com

   
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