Paso Robles school district ends staff furloughs as budget improves

The Paso Robles school board unanimously voted this week to eliminate staff furlough days, a sign that the district’s financial troubles — which once threatened to result in a state takeover — are in the past.

“We have turned the corner,” said Jim Lynett, executive director of the teachers union. “We’re optimistic going forward.”

While Paso Robles became the last school district in the county to eliminate furloughs — a point of contention with some staffers — the decision was greeted with a standing ovation at Tuesday’s board meeting, Lynett said.

The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District’s financial troubles surfaced publicly in December 2011, when the school board submitted a negative certification, saying it didn’t have the 1 percent reserve fund required by the state at the end of the school year.

Faced with the prospect of losing local control, the district instituted layoffs and furlough days. At its worst, the district required 12 furlough days during the school year.

But gradually, the district began to rebuild its reserves, partly as a result of the cuts. After three consecutive years of mandatory furloughs, the board voted to end those beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

“Every one of our board members is thankful for the sacrifices our staff made in order to help us be financially solvent,” said board President Katy Griffin, whose husband is a teacher in the district.

It wasn’t without a cost, Lynett said. Some teachers who didn’t get laid off eventually left for more secure jobs in other districts, he said. Others suffered financially.

“I know teachers who lost their homes and had to move into rentals,” he said.

This past school year, even after the district had regained its financial footing, the district still required six furlough days — over the objection of the teachers.

“We didn’t believe we needed furloughs last school year,” Lynett said.

The board also passed its $56.6 million budget for the 2014-15 school year this week.

The budget allows for a reserve of about 6 percent, said Ashley Lightfoot, the district’s public information officer. That number has more than doubled from its 2011 amount. While the state requires districts to have a 3 percent reserve, the district is shooting for a 10 percent reserve in case it encounters unforeseen financial challenges in the future.

“The problem is 3 percent doesn’t even cover one month of payroll,” Lightfoot said.

This year’s budget process was difficult, Lightfoot said, because the funding formula has changed. That has led some to mistakenly believe there is a budget shortfall, which is not the case, he said. While final numbers are still pending, the district is making gains, Lightfoot said.

“We’re still digging ourselves out of a economic hole, but we’re moving positively,” he said.