Paso Robles schools facing $3 million in budget cuts — that could mean teacher layoffs

The new Paso Robles school board must tackle the district’s growing financial problems and appoint a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Chris Williams.
The new Paso Robles school board must tackle the district’s growing financial problems and appoint a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Chris Williams.

The new Paso Robles school board will kick off its tenure Tuesday facing a host of major challenges, including the sudden resignation of its superintendent and a two-year $3 million budget shortfall that could result in teacher layoffs.

The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District has been dealing with budget problems for months. The district’s reserve for economic uncertainties has dropped precipitously since 2015, from 10 percent down to 1.73 percent, according to the first interim financial report for the 2018-19 school year.

On Tuesday, three newly elected trustees — Lance Gannon, Christopher Arend and Stephanie Ulibarri — will join the board and begin working to correct the district’s finances. The board will also begin the process of appointing an interim superintendent to replace Chris Williams, who resigned suddenly on Thursday.

In an unusual move, Superintendent James Brescia of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education will act as temporary chairperson during Tuesday’s meeting, in place of Williams, said Sheldon Smith, assistant superintendent of business services for the county.

Smith called Williams’ resignation in the midst of Paso Robles’ severe financial problems “concerning” for the district. He acknowledged Brescia’s role in Tuesday’s meeting is not normal, but said it’s common for county officials to advise school districts facing such a situation.

“That’s typically a function of the county office,” he said.

The California State Board of Education requires that a district of Paso Robles’ size maintain a 3 percent reserve. When the district’s reserve dropped below that level, the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education stepped in to help fix its finances.

Brad Pawlowski, the district’s chief business officer, told The Tribune in October that the dropping reserve was caused by average daily attendance calculation errors and overspending on personnel.

The interim report to be presented on Tuesday — the product of a partnership between the district and the county — paints a more dire picture than previous ones.

The district is on track to have a -0.78 percent reserve by the 2020-21 school year. It will also face a general fund deficit of at least $800,000 by that time.

To correct the situation, the board will consider a resolution confirming the district’s commitment to fiscal solvency. The resolution — which was drafted at the request of the county — lays out significant cuts the district will need to make beginning during the 2019-20 school year.

By Feb. 28, the district must identify an estimated $2.1 million in cuts from next year’s budget. During the 2019-20 fiscal year, officials will also need to find an additional $800,000 in reductions from the 2020-21 budget.

The cuts will come from faculty and staff, books and supplies, and services and operating expenses.

Jim Lynett, executive director of Paso Robles Public Educators union, described the district’s financial situation as a “downward kind of spiral.”

“This is kind of a self-inflicted wound,” he said.

When the union begins negotiating new teacher contracts in the spring, Lynett said he expects the process will be difficult, given the district’s lack of money.

“(Teachers) are very frustrated and upset and angry with the whole financial situation,” he said.

The school board will meet on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the district administration office, 800 Niblick Road.

Correction: The story text and headline have been updated to clarify that Paso Robles school district officials will need to cut about $3 million from the budget during the next two fiscal years.

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