Over the Hill

The problem with Paso Robles Public Schools

New traffic-lane striping has appeared on Paso Robles’ Niblick Bridge and several other needy streets. So I started feeling good again about my hometown.

But then last week, I read about a county grand jury report titled, “Are Paso Robles School Budgetary Woes a Lesson For Other Districts?”

The report says Paso Robles Public Schools ended this past school year in shakier financial condition than the nine other districts in the county.

Actually, all 10 spent more than they took in, but only Paso Robles was so close to broke that it was in danger of a state takeover.

State regulations require the Paso Robles district to have a reserve fund equal to 3 percent of its budget. By this spring, its reserves had shriveled to less than 1 percent. What saved the district were the six unpaid furlough days that employees agreed to in May and June. They conserved $1.1 million.

The grand jury listed three primary reasons for Paso Robles’ problems: (1) too little cost cutting while reserves dwindled for three years, (2) unanticipated Special Education costs, and (3) an accounting error that showed $1.58 million too much in reserves. You may read the entire report at http://slocourts.net/grand_jury.

In the report, the jury also recommends new school board members get mandatory training in school budgeting and finances. Today, school financing is an alien world where usual words have unusual meanings. But it didn’t seem that way when I was a boy in a one-room, rural school in a one-school district that held one business meeting a year.

Back then, parents and property owners attended the meeting. With the help of the county superintendent of schools, they worked out the next year’s budget on the blackboard. It included salaries for the teacher and janitor, money for coal and electricity and maybe for fluorescent lights that year.

The superintendent of schools figured the tax rate needed to fund the spending. Then, the people either approved the tax or reduced the spending. Finally, they elected one resident as district trustee to spend the tax money in the way they had directed.

But today, a California school district board can no longer set its own tax rate. Proposition 13 took away that power, and the legislature and ballot initiatives have complicated things further.

I bet most school board members had hoped to help improve education. But, instead, their main job today is to seek the least harmful ways to cut programs that the state doesn’t provide enough money for.

Phil Dirkx’s has lived in Paso Robles for more than four decades and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.