Money spent, money saved

By Marsha Sutton

Continuing with last week’s theme of school board agenda items concerning financial matters and policies and procedures, some decisions and actions taken in the San Dieguito Union High School District are mildly noteworthy.

SDUHSD’s special education costs will be lower this year, according to an Aug. 22 board report submitted by Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services.

The number of students placed in non-public schools (NPS) dropped, from 52 last year to 48 this year. And the number of students placed by the district in residential treatment centers (RTC) dropped from 16 to nine this year. RTCs are facilities where students live full-time, and NPSs are privately run day schools that students are transported to and from by the district.

This decrease of 11 students previously placed in facilities outside the district resulted in a savings of about $1 million to the district’s general fund, Grove said. All 11 have been brought back into the district in district-created special education programs. These programs cost the district about $500,000, resulting in a potential decrease in encroachment on the general fund for special education of about $500,000 this year.

Another four or five students may return to the district later this year, he said, which would save more money.

“We believe we can serve those kids much more cheaply than a residential treatment center because those can be anywhere from $90,000 to $140,000 a year to place one student there,” Grove said.

Grove cited two primary reasons for the drop in special education costs: the district’s creation of newly-designed special ed programs and the return of some former NPS and RTC students who received appropriate treatment and can now be integrated back into the district’s already existing special ed programs.

San Dieguito’s new program to accommodate special ed students who formerly qualified for RTC or NPS facilities is called Seaside Prep and is housed at Torrey Pines High School.

Grove said the district worked closely with special education attorneys and advocates to design Seaside Prep, to ensure that the program would adequately serve students’ needs.

“As long as we can provide appropriate services, that’s the key – the right service for the right kid,” Grove said. “That’s why we still have large numbers of kids in non-public schools and in RTCs, because we can’t serve all kids.”

The district identified the students it felt could be well-served at Seaside Prep, and Grove said there was little resistance from parents. The alternative is sending their children to a distant residential facility that can be as far away as Texas or Utah, or having them ride a bus nearly an hour each way to attend an NPS.

“Most parents want their kids to be near home or school,” he said. “They want them to go to community schools if there’s a program that can support them.”

Title and salary adjustment

Also at that meeting, board members discussed a revision in title and salary for the position of executive director of curriculum and instruction. The district asked the board to approve a title change, to executive director of educational services, with a corresponding bump in salary to $144,772 from $137,009.

Board member John Salazar objected, saying, “We’re deficit spending. I don’t think it’s a good idea when we’re deficit spending to give raises.”

Salazar said the change would mean the high school principals would now no longer be the highest-paid administrators at the non-cabinet level.

“I think our principals should be the highest paid besides the cabinet and the superintendent because they’re on the front lines,” he said. “I think if we do this, very soon we’ll have to raise the salary of our principals. I think this is a ripple effect.”

Board member Joyce Dalessandro strongly objected to Salazar’s position, saying, “First, I’d like to point out that we are not raising anyone’s salary. We are redefining, re-imagining, a position that has a great deal of responsibility, a great deal of time commitment – certainly every bit as much of a time commitment as a high school principal, and a lot more.”

The amount of money in the salary increase – $7,763 – was small, she argued, and is trivial if it makes the difference in attracting high-quality candidates.

She also said the board should follow the recommendation of the district’s administrators who she called “the best, the brightest administrators in the region and beyond, who are fiscally conservative, who do not steer us wrong.”

Board president Barbara Groth also supported the change, saying the district’s principals would have more incentive to apply for higher-level positions if there weren’t a pay cut.

“It would be a logical progression for them to step in on this level but they won’t,” she said. “They are the ones we need to attract to this position.”

Chicken or egg

Superintendent Rick Schmitt said the role of the position has evolved since the job description and salary were reviewed in 2004.

“The new role … represents a significant increase in responsibilities in both scope and relevance to district priorities,” Schmitt said. “I believe, and our experience in recruiting for the position proved, that these expanded roles and responsibilities both justify and require a salary commensurate with responsibilities and skills and experience required.”

The position was formerly held by Grove until he was promoted this summer to associate superintendent, taking Schmitt’s former job after Schmitt was promoted to superintendent.

Grove said for a few years he and Schmitt discussed rewriting the job description, changing the title and revising the salary level to more accurately reflect the position’s increased responsibilities.

“But it wasn’t a particularly high priority at the time,” he said.

The position is a promotion in title for a high school principal but the pay is lower. No internal candidates applied, and Grove said most of the external, qualified candidates indicated the job represented a “significant” pay cut, with reduced benefits.

“As we went through that process, we recognized that if we were going to get someone who was qualified to take the position that we were going to need to increase the pay,” he said.

Grove said he had hoped to find a qualified candidate at the current salary level, “because no one wants to be spending more money right now.” But no luck.

To cut corners and save money over the last few years of the recession, Grove said the practice has been to eliminate one administrative position by combining two positions, rewriting job descriptions, increasing responsibility, and bumping up the pay slightly.

Schmitt said the elimination last year of two management positions saved the district nearly $250,000.

The motion to revise the job description and increase the salary level passed 4-1.

This was not just an academic exercise. A candidate in the wings was interested in the position but reluctant because of the salary. Had he taken the job without the salary change, Grove said it would have represented about a $10,000 pay cut.

The chicken or egg question comes to mind. Which came first, the candidate or the need to make changes to the job’s title and salary?

“The chicken was the redesign of the position, and we were trying to be cheap on the egg but it didn’t work,” Grove said.

After formal approval to change the title and salary by the board on Aug. 22, Jason Viloria started his new job on Aug. 26 as SDUHSD’s executive director of educational services at a base salary of $144,772. Viloria, who reports to Grove, was formerly Irvine Unified School District’s principal of Woodbridge High School.

Getting money back

Last week, when I discussed the practice of change orders to work contracts that increase the amount after the contractor has already been chosen, I suggested that the system seems ripe for abuse. After the scope of the work is increased through change orders, the additional work is generally given to the firm first awarded the contract without going out to bid again.

I specifically mentioned to watch for change orders for contractors working with San Dieguito as it proceeds with its Proposition AA facilities bond money, so it’s appropriate to give credit where credit is due.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, five change orders were presented but this time in the district’s favor, resulting in a decrease in the contracted amount for work done at the two middle schools in Encinitas, Oak Crest and Diegueno. This resulted in a total reduction and savings of $335,609. Taxpayers win on this one.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at