Education Matters: Reviewing San Dieguito’s missteps

The most recent misstep at the San Dieguito Union High School District centers on the lack of planning for adequate facilities for the Adult Transition Program, which serves special education students ages 18-22.

But there have been others. Besides the ones listed last week, no recitation could be complete without discussing the district’s precarious financial status.

SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill’s yearly prediction that the district nearly always manages to close its deficit by the end of the fiscal year, thanks to careful planning and conservative estimates, did not come to pass this time.

Final figures will be available this month, but Dill told me a deficit is anticipated. At the May board meeting, the deficit was estimated to be about $8.5 million.

As the deficit grows, reserves decline. With mandatory pension contributions rising, the trend line is alarming.

In May, the district showed projected reserves dwindling from 12.2 percent in 2016-2017, to 8.8 percent in 2017-2018, to 4.9 percent in 2018-2019, to 3.3 percent in 2019-2020.

Contributions to CalSTRS (the California State Teachers Retirement System) are projected to increase from 8.25 percent of teacher salaries in 2013-2014 to 19.1 percent by 2020-2021.

Districts can expect contribution increases to CalPERS (the California Public Employees Retirement System) as well. The projected rate for 2020-2021 approaches 24.9 percent, with a top rate of 28.2 percent in 2023-2024.

A major factor eroding the district’s general fund is the 12.5-percent salary increase given to all district employees last year, amounting to an annual expense of $6.5 million.

District management in late 2015 and early 2016 assured the board that there was plenty of money for this $6.5 million expenditure well into the future. Three of the five school board members drank the Kool-Aid and approved the increase in compensation which was given to every district employee, not just teachers.

Although the financial health of school districts is ultimately a board responsibility, the superintendent oversees all operations in the district, always with an eye toward the bottom line.

To be fair, Dill did not propose the $6.5 million raises. Yet as head of Business Services under then- superintendent Rick Schmitt, Dill knew the numbers and had to realize that it was risky to incur that much in general fund expense, an expenditure that will never go away. Now as superintendent, he’s responsible for undoing the damage.

The district’s false optimism and poor financial planning will negatively affect all programs unless the state suddenly enjoys a miraculous infusion of cash in coming years. With Gov. Jerry Brown predicting an end to the last few years of economic growth, new money seems unlikely.

As a result, parents can expect to be asked more insistently to donate to school foundations and classrooms for items and programs the school district should be funding.

School board members are not fulfilling their primary duty to safeguard taxpayer money when they put complete faith in empty promises that the budget may begin the fiscal year looking dire but will end with a rosy outcome.

Facility priorities

The passage of Proposition AA, narrow though it was, gave the district an opportunity to update facilities and provide new construction to meet 21st-century needs of students.

So how did sports become the top priority for Prop. AA funds, over classrooms?

Was it right for the district to prioritize millions of dollars to build athletic fields at Canyon Crest Academy before any number of other facility needs, such as permanent state-of-the-art ATP classrooms?

Why was construction of athletic fields at the 22-acre La Costa Valley site, where there is no school and no students attend classes, ahead of so many other more pressing needs on the project list?

In a related matter, should the district’s foundations be occupying space at all four high schools free of charge? Could these rooms be used instead by students or teachers?

Although it’s good that Dill was able to place all three Adult Transition Program classrooms together at La Costa Canyon High School, to the relief of ATP parents, why did he tell the SOUL Charter School founders that there was no room for them at LCC or any of the district’s other schools when clearly there was?

Should the district have provided free office space and resources at Earl Warren Middle School to former San Dieguito Faculty Association president Bob Croft, to carry out his union duties?

Croft, who retired June 30, was paid a full salary – $125,797 – but hasn’t taught in a classroom since 2010. A substitute teacher was hired each year since 2010, at considerable expense, to teach Croft’s physical education classes.

Culture of secrecy

Too often San Dieguito operates as an independent, insular government agency with little regard for open communication with its shareholders (parents and taxpayers). This pervasive culture of secrecy percolates from the top down.

The lack of responsiveness by Dill to repeated requests for clarification and information continues to disturb board members, the press and community members.

The district’s secretive practice of putting little or nothing in emails on controversial subjects is a sneaky way to avoid revelations that might come to light through a Public Records Request.

Claiming attorney-client privilege as reason to deny the release of information is an overused excuse that in many cases has no merit.

Too much information is labeled confidential and withheld from the public.

Whether it’s intended or not, many parents feel disrespected and ignored. This disregard for constituents is indicative of a climate in need of radical overhaul.

The days when staff could make decisions unilaterally, backed by a board that rubber-stamped all recommendations, are clearly over. Parents are more involved and are advocating more strongly for their children and their children’s best interests. As they should.

Breaking open that closed door policy is an important step. What the community needs to see is availability, access and openness.

ATP concerns

The problems associated with the Adult Transition Program were avoidable, had the district been more transparent and listened and responded to concerns raised months, if not years, ago. Those concerns were not just about facilities but also about the lack of decent, updated curriculum for special education students.

This ties into the general complaint that not enough attention was being given to this cohort of students.

The situation has been temporarily resolved (at least for the 2017-2018 school year) after the explosive parent forum held July 28 when ATP parents let loose on the beleaguered superintendent for what they perceived as discriminatory treatment of their children.

The ATP parents’ desire to move forward in a spirit of cooperation, after all they’ve been through, is laudable. But to avoid a future repeat of this kind of uprising, the district needs to acknowledge its shortcomings and resolve to put into place policies and a culture that respects parents, treats everyone with dignity, responds to inquiries with timeliness and honesty, and upholds principles of full transparency.

Perhaps this unfortunate episode can be a moment of awakening for the district.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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