Nevada County Board of Education approves budget amidst dissent
June 20, 2014
The Nevada County Board of Education passed the 2014-15 Superintendent of Schools budget Wednesday, but two members of the board voted against it.
Marianne Slade-Troutman and Jack Meeks voted no after saying they did not approve of a 4 percent salary increase for new county employees and claiming that the budget had too much money in reserves and funds allocated to administrators.
"We have staff members here who have not had a raise in seven years. I thoroughly approve their raise; we have the money, we should give it to them," Slade-Troutman said. "I do not approve a raise for people that we have just hired who have a very nice salary already."
Donna Fitting, associate superintendent of Business Services, gave a presentation on the budget, breaking down where funds will be allocated in the coming year, which included $161,000 for the 4 percent staff salary increase, $30,000 for a grant writer, $65,000 for increased Local Control Accountability Plan requirements, and $75,000 allocated in total to staff training, family resource and parenting support, Nevada County Arts and Economic Resource Council partnership projects, and a Step up to Kindergarten program.
Meeks pointed to more than $250,000 in funds he claimed were going to administrative overhead and more than $3 million in the budget that he referred to as a reserve "slush fund" that he said should go to school services instead.
But board member Bob Altieri pointed out that each individual school district in the county funds its own programs, which amounts to more than 13,000 students, and that the county's budget is only responsible for school year programs for around 40 students.
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When board president Trevor Michael attempted to reference the budget and address Meeks' concerns, before Meeks was finished addressing the board, a heated exchange between the two ensued.
"You're trying to shut me up; let the audience recognize this fellow is shutting me up," Meeks said. "The salary increase is hidden in this $3 million line. It's all consolidated with no breakdown. There is not one line item involved in this thing. Thank you for omitting it. The budget is obscure."
Don Bessee, a local real estate agent, concurred with Meeks' sentiment, saying the budget should have footnotes so the public could understand what money is being spent on.
"This is not a transparent budget," Bessee said. "I object to a consolidated budget because we have to guess and estimate what goes where. In working with budgets, I find line items to be very helpful in analyzing where the money is going."
Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen addressed the concerns by saying she will discuss the budget format with her staff to make sure that it is transparent and easily understood by community members.
"This is the first I have ever heard from the board or the public about any concern with the transparency of our budget, and it is presented very similarly to other county office budgets," Hermansen said. "… Also I think there is some misunderstanding about the $250,000. This is just an accounting issue; it's being allocated to administration and general administration responsibilities; the money is not going to administrators."
Regarding the unallocated funds in the budget, Hermansen added, "We are still operating in times of fiscal uncertainty, so it is prudent to proceed cautiously. That being said, we should also thoughtfully consider appropriate programs and services to provide with our unallocated funds. I will be working with the board on this in the coming months."
Fitting cautioned that the state's new county reserves requirement has shrunk, and that a county can have a maximum reserve that cannot exceed more than two-times the statutory, which would make it illegal to have a certain percentage of reserves in the budget, and for the county that percentage would be around 8 percent.
"It reduces local control and flexibility in uncertain times," Fitting said. "The new reserve limit also supersedes the uniqueness of each district, and governmental finance experts in the past have said two months of expenses would be a good amount to have in reserves, which comes out to be around 17 percent."
Slade-Troutman, though, said the state is sending a message to counties. "They're sending us more money than we've seen in many, many years. But they want us to use it for something," Slade-Troutman said. "Local funding means do something with it, don't just let it sit there; and I think we need to be cognizant of that."
Slade-Troutman also pushed for more funds to be used for summer programs for next year. Bessee suggested more money be allocated to teacher and school minigrants. After a lengthy discussion, the board decided to add $124,000 to the initial $20,000 allotment for a new 2014-15 summer program and raised the minigrant allocation to $100,000.
John Muir Charter School Executive Director R.J. Gonzales-Guess spoke during the public forum, saying that summer programs at his schools have usually not been useful for students from grades six through eight.
"I never thought I'd see the day when liberals wanted to save and Republicans wanted to spend," Gonzalez-Guess said Wednesday. "It's like the whole world has flipped on its axis."
Hermansen added that her office is in support of the summer program but had a strong recommendation for the board.
"I knew that the board was interested in a full summer school program for the summer of 2015 rather than a pilot, and I fully support that plan," Hermansen said.
"However, it is my recommendation that we start with a K-5 program and then explore six-eight in the future. The board agreed to that, so we will be moving forward with that plan."
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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