At tense meeting, Paso school board begins task of cutting $3 million from budget

Paso Robles’ new school board got to work immediately on Tuesday night — committing to cut nearly $3 million from the district’s budget during the next two years and beginning the search for an interim superintendent.

Jim Brescia, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education, acted as temporary chairman of the board while three newly elected trustees — Lance Gannon, Christopher Arend and Stephanie Ulibarri — and incumbent Tim Gearhart were sworn into office.

Superintendent Chris Williams, who resigned on Thursday, did not attend the meeting. Williams’ absence was a personal choice — the county Office of Education did not ask him to step down from the dais, Brescia said.

The superintendent — who still had 60 days left in his position when he announced his resignation on Thursday — will depart from the district on Dec. 22 by making use of paid vacation and non-duty days, Brescia said.

Tuesday’s meeting was thick with tension and rife with uncertainty following the departure of Williams and three incumbent board members who weren’t re-elected in November.

The board still includes members who have clashed in the past, including Chris Bausch, who was censured in March 2017 after being accused of intimidating and threatening trustees and district staff.

Brescia urged the new board to work together and keep the interests of the district’s students front and center.

“I know that some of you don’t like each other,” he said. “We have to own that.”

The trustees’ first duty was to select a new board president, and members nominated both Bausch and Joel Peterson. Ultimately, they voted 4-3 to elect Peterson as president and 7-0 to elect Ulibarri as secretary.

“Transparency and trust are the two keys we need to get back to,” Peterson said.

During a closed-session meeting, trustees asked Brescia to reach out to interim superintendent candidates and begin negotiations, Peterson said. Brescia will help facilitate the board’s next meeting as trustees continue their transition process.

On Wednesday, Brescia announced longtime former county schools superintendent Julian Crocker will take over the district on an interim basis. Crocker will be installed at a special board meeting to be held during the next two weeks.

Committing to budget cuts

Later in the meeting, the board also voted 7-0 to pass a fiscal solvency resolution committing the district to $3 million in budget cuts during the next two years.

If current financial conditions persist, the district’s general fund will be running a deficit of more than $1 million during the 2020-21 fiscal year, according to the 2018-19 first interim financial report. And the district’s reserves for economic uncertainty will reach -0.78 percent by that time.

The fiscal solvency resolution states the district will find $2 million in reductions for the 2019-20 fiscal year by the end of February. Officials will also plan to cut $800,000 from the 2020-21 budget.

Brad Pawlowski, the district’s chief business officer, said his office has already identified $1.3 million in potential reductions, leaving $800,000 still to be worked out during the next two months.

The board agreed the cuts will be difficult for the district, and trustees said they will try to keep them away from the classrooms as much as possible.

“None of this is going to be easy,” Bausch said. “None of this is going to be popular. But it’s absolutely imperative that we get this done.”

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.