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Task force offers ideas for school to save money

DEL MAR — A Del Mar Union School District financial task force convened to provide input for current and long-term budgetary goals, cost-saving measures, revenue enhancement and reserve guidelines received no shortage of suggestions from parents and employees.
Nearly 70 forms, many with numerous recommendations, were submitted with ideas that included merging with the neighboring Solana Beach district, shortening the school year, eliminating a teacher-parent conference day and better promoting the scrip program.
Several people thought the district should find ways to conserve energy and water. Many suggested using noncredentialed instructors for enrichment classes.
“The service and skills provided by the art, music, science and technology teachers just isn’t worth the (money) we are paying each of them,” one parent wrote. “It could be done just as well for far less.”
There were also numerous recommendations to cut or freeze salaries for all district employees.
“We are fortunate to have fantastic teachers and staff at our schools, and would rather not cut salaries, but it certainly is something that must be considered in addressing the budget shortfall,” one letter stated.
However, a staff member noted teachers volunteered more than 15,000 hours from September through March and paid higher insurance premiums, saving the district approximately $1.6 million.
“Teachers took a pay cut this year, increased class sizes, and eliminated professional development to help save money,” the staff member wrote.
The two most frequent cost-saving recommendations were to close a school and not hire vice principals for larger schools, although many parents opposed reworking boundaries to even out enrollment.
The 18-member panel, which met nine times between January and April, divided into six subcommittees to review each suggestion, but found implementation was easier said than done.
Expenditure reductions are difficult because the largest expense — teachers’ salaries — is governed by union contracts. So are working conditions such as prep time, class size, length of the school year, etc.
Budgeting is a challenge because income is based on property taxes, which can fluctuate, and exact amounts are not known until after the district creates its annual budget.
“School financing is quite a different animal than what you would see in a for-profit business,” task force member Jonathan Flam said.
Allowing employees to opt out of health care coverage could save the district an estimated $350,000 to $900,000, but it is also subject to collective bargaining.
The task force recommended maintaining a reserve balance of 22 percent to 30 percent. The district’s existing $13 million reserve fund represents about 27 percent of expenditures. The state requires districts to have a minimum reserve balance of 3 percent.
Reducing programs and services for students while there are sufficient reserves to handle any temporary deficits was not recommended. At this point the district could release about $2 million and still maintain sufficient reserves, but that amount doesn’t even cover what has already been cut by the state.
The group also recommended the school board evaluate a parcel tax for possible future use under “dire financial circumstances.” With 17,000 parcels in the district, a $200 tax on each would generate an additional $3.5 million annually.
School districts in Northern California rely on parcel tax income, but the concept hasn’t been successful in the southern part of the state, Flam said. The tax requires voter approval by a super majority.
Other revenue generating recommendations include increasing fees for field and facility use and allowing advertising on the district website. The task force suggested the district perform a comprehensive business plan and market analysis before expanding the for-profit preschool.
A preliminary study to determine the cost savings of using solar energy was also recommended.
The task force included 13 parents — at least one from each of the district’s eight schools — a principal, a classified staff member and an appointee from the teachers union, education foundation and district office cabinet.
“In the DMUSD we are extremely fortunate that during these challenging economic times our children’s education and the programs they receive have not been reduced or compromised in any significant way,” the group stated in its conclusion.
Visit and click on the Financial Task Force link to view the full report, recommendations and public input.