Monday, December 18, 2023

Questions from the Press, Monday, December 18, 2023.

Starting last Wednesday evening through Saturday morning, I got a series of emails from the Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune with questions about the Sonoma Valley Unified budget, the Sonoma Splash Memorandum of Use, SVUSD’s Special Education Plan, and trustees seeking compensation from the District. Because the four are related, I have answered them in one consolidated post. Photo is of Margie, who for Christmas could really use two front teeth. 

The problems with the SVUSD budget are straightforward. Accompanying the budget report are the SACS printouts. "SACS" is shorthand for Standardized Account Code Structure (SACS) Web financial reporting system, which allows for the preparation of budget, interim, and unaudited actuals reporting period data and reports that are submitted to oversight agencies and the California Department of Education (CDE). While the District puts out PowerPoint presentations with processed information, examining SACS allows for the review of the actual data. The SACS report forced SVUSD to explain why there are such large changes, leading to a massive projected deficit. 

On page 366 of the agenda, SVUSD gave a succinct explanation of the very large changes in the budget that have effectively eliminated the District's unrestricted reserves and dropped Sonoma Valley Unified into qualified status. "Expenditures were not budgeted accurately during budget development and are being corrected at First Interim." That is an understated explanation for a budget that was riddled with errors when presented, as previously discussed here. The trustees must demand balanced budgets, as the lack of rigor in the SVUSD budgeting process continues to plague the District.

These errors have comprehensively undermined our District's reporting of its condition to the public. However, the errors are not limited to the $1.4 million dollar loss due to SVUSD failing to file its transportation plan by the April 1, 2023 deadline, or the nearly $2 million underestimation of benefits, or the improper entry of more than a million dollars of expenses as revenue items (a negative number being entered as an expenditure). Instead there are structural problems with our actual revenues and expenses, rather than merely a mess of a projected budget for SVUSD, that demand action. 

First, the District is finally coming clean about its actual attendance. On page 357 of the agenda, SVUSD admitted that its actual attendance (ADA) for 2023-24 is 2,957, and not the 3,202 earlier reported. Attendance continues to drop exactly as projected by Davis Demographics, as discussed hereWe have, as trustees, been notified of continuing serious problems with the financial and demographic data provided by our District, and SVUSD is now acknowledging its errors, which at a minimum is necessary before we begin to address the District's issues. 

Moving to further actual issues, after years of underpaying teachers, SVUSD finally has a contract in place that compensates educators appropriately, and due to "me too" clauses our classified staff and some administrators are now being paid in a manner reflective of their contributions to our community. However, this means that SVUSD needs to staff appropriately, as the consequences of overspending now become serious faster. This means that right-sizing the District promptly via realignment and school consolidation is ever more important, to cut waste. The District had an opportunity to do so this past March, and largely fumbled the chance to do so, although the end of enrollment at Dunbar and the consolidation of that site, essentially, into El Verano has provided some of the $3.2 million in savings that could have been achieved by moving to a 3 elementary-1 middle school-1 high school configuration (as has been recommended by staff). 

Make no mistake, both educational effectiveness, in terms of the special education plan, and addressing the financial problems in the District, depend upon reducing our footprint and maximizing administrative effectiveness as a consequence. Turning to our new special education plan, which I thank our educators for developing, I remain cognizant of the fact that our century-old District footprint disperses services, impacting the identification and support of special education students during elementary and middle school years. To effectively implement these new strategies, we must accelerate consolidation and realignment to apply our administrative resources effectively, otherwise we can only expect more of the same.

Similarly, the District must make sure it partners effectively with the community when District operations are obviously of dual use to Sonoma Valley at large, as SVUSD's unrestricted revenues need to be dedicated to educational purposes. The relationship with Sonoma Splash has, since its inception, been intended to ensure the cost of operating a community pool does not reduce the compensation of our teachers and staff. I commend Sonoma Splash for all their hard work. Splash specifically requested a modification of their MOU to allow them to expand their hours in furtherance of that mission, which they received on Thursday. However, Sonoma Splash is currently running at an untenable monthly deficit of tens of thousands of dollars, and given the District's own mismanaged finances, SVUSD cannot afford to operate the pool directly, meaning it is almost inevitable that the aquatic center's situation will be back before the Board for urgent discussions in the near future.

The process of drawing attention to the problems of waste and educational ineffectiveness in SVUSD has not been an easy one, as demonstrated here and here. During the realignment conversations this past March and April, a staff member of the District made public comments, specifically concerning me, that I brought directly, confidentially, to the attention of the superintendent. The comments from the staff member referenced the Board and the actions of certain Board members. That is precisely how a trustee should handle the improper conduct of a staff member. Make no mistake, the realignment process was deliberately brought to the attention of the board and the public because of the inevitable budget problems that would be created should nothing be done. 

The complaint was handled improperly, in violation of explicit District policies. I brought a closed session item in November to address the breach, which has led to the ending of the District's relationship with its former coordinator of investigations. The substance of those conversations cannot be disclosed by a trustee, and the board has not waived its right to those closed session protections. However, two of the trustees who are named, but were not the focus, have sought to make the process about them, and those trustees claimed that the board should waive the attorney client privilege regarding the report, so that they could review the matter privately, assuring that the report would not be published. 

However, the true motive for asking the board to waive the privilege was to cause a heavily redacted version of the investigation to be made public, and then seek money from SVUSD based upon the false light those trustees themselves sought to create. This was unprofessional, and has further undermined the integrity of our investigatory process. The report should not have been released in a fashion that would further intra-board conflict, and I am disappointed this was done. However, I am not surprised that the investigatory process is being weaponized, as it has happened before.

We as a District need our investigatory processes to function properly, as our students themselves depend on the integrity of those procedures when wronged. The defects with SVUSD's investigatory processes have been made clear in the context of this matter, and related litigation SVUSD has been engaged in recently. Further, the publication of some, but not all of the report by SVUSD, including covering up both the central part of the conduct that led to the process, and failing to disclose the improper behavior of the investigation coordinator, makes it unlikely that the procedure will help address wrongs in the future, and necessarily increasing polarization in our community and leading to a further lack of accountability. This is all to the detriment of our students. 

The board must get its budget under control. Balanced budgets should be required in the future, and deficit spending should only be allowed on a 4/5ths vote, as we cannot break this cycle of behavior without it. We must consolidate our schools to reflect the actual student population of our valley, rather than fitting our instructional program to an inherited set of real properties. The same set of trustees responsible for our fiscal fiasco must stop weaponizing the investigatory process to distract attention from the District's real problems. Only then can we continue to ensure our teachers and educators will receive the compensation they deserve.