The Cambrian

Coast Unified board seeks to preserve high school agriculture post

Coast Unified trustees, from left, Dennis Rightmer, Lee McFarland and board President Samuel Shalhoub listen during the Jan. 11 board meeting.
Coast Unified trustees, from left, Dennis Rightmer, Lee McFarland and board President Samuel Shalhoub listen during the Jan. 11 board meeting.

An agriculture position at Coast Union High School might not be eliminated after all.

Science/ag teacher Cyndie Wilson was one of five teachers to accept offers of early retirement as Coast Unified School District wrestles with the task of trimming its budget.

But many in a packed board room Thursday night, Jan. 11, told the board they wanted to see the position filled. Ultimately, the board agreed, voting 3-1 (with Tiffany Silva absent and Del Clegg dissenting) to explore ways of preserving Wilson’s position.

Three options

Earlier in the meeting, Superintendent Vicki Schumacher presented the board with three options for budget cuts, all of which eliminated Wilson’s position, one of two ag-related posts at Coast Union.

Several students, however, spoke out in favor of retaining the position, saying the agriculture program had been an integral part of their high school experience.

“The ag program has been a big part of how I knew I was in the right place,” said junior Serena Valenzuela. “The ag program is like a home for many students.”

Darcy Dobrec, the school’s other ag teacher, said 133 of the schools 189 students are involved in ag studies on campus. Last year’s FFA contingent raised more than $44,000 at the California Mid-State Fair.

Aaron Wharton’s daughter Annika was among those who raised market hogs for the fair. He told the board that she didn’t have to take a part-time job outside of school because of the money she raised with the animal.

“We’re going to be taking the rug out from under these kids’ feet, and it’s a disservice to do so,” said Wharton, who serves on the Cambria Community Services District board.

Money crunch

The district is trying to preserve a healthy reserve fund in the face of rising contributions to employee retirement, the loss of some grant money and projected losses of $550,800 by 2020-21 under a proposed memorandum of understanding with the Cayucos Elementary School District and San Luis Coastal Unified.

Some Cayucos students say they’d prefer to attend Morro Bay High School (in San Luis Coastal) which is closer than the Cambria campus. This would deprive Coast Union of students and the property taxes their families pay.

Even without the Cayucos issue, Coast Unified enrollment has been declining over the past four years, falling from 713 students in 2014-15 to 603 students this school year.

Each of the three proposals Schumacher presented called for eliminating five full-time teaching positions. The teachers who held those posts accepted offers of early retirement in December. In addition to the ag post, the affected positions were:

▪  A multi-subject teacher at Cambria Grammar School.

▪  A Santa Lucia Middle School math teacher.

▪  A history/social science position at Santa Lucia Middle School.

▪  A multi-subject teacher at Leffingwell High School.

Even with those reductions, board President Samuel Shalhoub said, the district would fall short of the target reserve levels established by the state.

Vicki Schumacher, superintendent of Coast Unified School District, gives a presentation on the district’s finances and proposed budget cuts Jan. 11. Stephen H. Provost

Superintendent’s salary

Some in the meeting questioned Schumacher’s $201,000 salary, arguing that too much money was being spent on administration and not enough on teachers and facilities.

Board President Samuel Shalhoub took the unusual step of opening the meeting with a defense of Schumacher’s performance and salary. “The board has come to deeply value Dr. Schumacher’s leadership and dedication to our students,” he said.

But representatives of the teachers and classified employees unions sais the superintendent’s pay is 44 percent higher than leaders of similar districts, and argued that the district’s financial picture isn’t as grim as it has been portrayed.

“The dire future of the school district’s finances is not reflected in the financial data available,” said Patti Stroh of the California School Employees Association, who addressed the board alongside Joe Sassaman of the Coast Cambria Teachers Association.

Stroh said Coast Unified “has in excess of $17,000 per student” and maintained that even with a loss of $1.6 million in money supplied by Cayucos families, the figure would still be nearly $4,000 higher than the county average.

“The superintendent’s salary has increased at a feverish pace — 31 percent over the last four years — while staff salaries have increased an average of 10 percent over the last five years,” Stroh said.

Board decision

The board majority supported the Schumacher’s third proposal, which contained the deepest cuts. The proposal calls for the elimination of the five positions, plus another half-time position; cuts of two full-time management positions and 1.875 classified positions.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re solvent, and it’s a tough situation,” board member Dennis Rightmer said. “We need to make sure that this is going to last a long time, and it’s not just a Band Aid situation.”

Clegg said some of the programs taking cuts weren’t being offered when he joined the board. Since then, he said, “We rolled out the ag program in our school. We rolled out art. We rolled out music. There are a lot of things that weren’t here six or seven years ago.”

“We can’t just make money appear out of nowhere,” Shalhoub said. “We need to be flexible, and we need to be responsible.”

But he added that audience members’ concern over the ag program had resonated with him.

“Given the input from our audience, preservation of that ag position seems extremely critical,” he said, moving that the board accept Schumacher’s third proposal — but with an amendment that would “look at preserving the ag (position).”

Rightmer seconded the motion, and it passed, with only Clegg opposed.

Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896, @sproauthor