Editorials

Paso Robles schools are in fiscal meltdown again. Citizens deserve to know why

County schools superintendent begins Paso Robles board meeting with a Dr. Suess quote

SLO County Office of Education Superintendent James Brescia leads the Paso Robles Joint Unified School Board in its first meeting as new members are sworn after the former superintendent resigned.
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SLO County Office of Education Superintendent James Brescia leads the Paso Robles Joint Unified School Board in its first meeting as new members are sworn after the former superintendent resigned.

There’s no sense sugar-coating it: Once again, public schools in Paso Robles are in serious financial trouble, roughly five years after climbing out of a huge financial hole.

The Paso Robles community deserves more than vague explanations; it’s time for a full accounting of what, exactly, went wrong.

On top of that, the school board — which includes three first-time members sworn in just this week — has other major work to do:

1) Begin the process of replacing outgoing district Superintendent Chris Williams, who resigned abruptly on Dec. 6.

2) Start figuring out how to cut $2.8 million from the budget over the coming two years.

The first round of cuts — $2 million — must be identified by the end of February.

District leaders want to avoid cuts that directly affect students. They also want to avoid teacher furloughs — a highly unpopular step the district took during the last financial crisis.

Those are admirable goals, but the district should not minimize its predicament. Nor should it make commitments it may not be able to keep.

And it should absolutely keep the public informed, starting with releasing the terms of Williams’ separation.

There’s been widespread speculation that Williams could get a financial settlement of as much as $225,000 under an early termination clause in his contract.

While the district confirmed there is a settlement, it has not yet released details.

It’s been known for several months that the Paso Robles Joint Union School District is on shaky financial ground. That was a major issue in an election that culminated with the ouster of three incumbent board members in November.

The scope of the problem became even more apparent this week, with the release of a new financial report on Tuesday. It showed that, if nothing is done, the district will be out of reserves and will face a general fund deficit of at least $800,000 by 2020-21.

That’s especially shocking when you consider that in 2012 — not that terribly long ago — the county grand jury issued a scathing report titled, “Are Paso Robles School Budgetary Woes a Lesson for Other Districts?”

The district had been on the brink of losing control to the state — that’s how dire the situation was at that point.

So how did this happen again?

Administrators have cited errors in calculating average daily attendance, which is a major source of state revenue, and in overspending on personnel.

At a board meeting in September, Williams accepted responsibility and vowed to get the budget back on track:

“It is 100 percent my responsibility and accountability that I own this budget, and I am responsible for it. I do not point my finger to blame anyone else,” Williams said, according to a report in the Paso Robles Press. “The reality is that the time I’ve spent implementing new programs, upgrading facilities, and creating award-winning visual and performing arts programs that offer art, music and dance for every elementary (student), should have been spent focused on the budget.”

Williams also donated his 2.1 percent raise to an educational foundation — a magnanimous gesture, but one that was nonetheless far too little, and far too late.

Yet when Williams announced his resignation, he offered no mea culpas. Not only did he not take responsibility for the district’s financial troubles, he cast plenty of aspersions in other directions.

He accused unnamed persons of tearing down the district with “personal attacks, lies, and inflammatory comments,” and he took potshots at unnamed media outlets: “Our community and students deserve more than mediocre, unfounded, unproven myths that continue to be low-level, irresponsible reporting,” he wrote in a resignation letter.

He also urged the district to champion “people ... who are truth tellers and do not hide.”

That’s ironic, given Williams’ unsubstantiated attacks on unnamed targets, his decision to stay away from Tuesday night’s board meeting, leaving county schools chief Jim Brescia to chair the meeting, and the vague replies he’s offered in response to questions from The Tribune..

At least the district will be in good hands going forward: Veteran administrator Julian Crocker, who was county schools superintendent for 16 years and helped shepherd the district back into good financial standing back in 2012.

Crocker is a straight-shooter, which is exactly what the entire community needs right now, because this isn’t just a schools issue.

This is something that concerns every member of a community that’s been highly supportive of Paso schools.

Example: In 2016, voters approve a $95 million bond measure to finance improvements and repairs. Now, a key component of that plan — a swimming pool complex — may be delayed if bids to install the pool come in over budget.

Under the circumstances, who could blame Paso Robles residents for losing faith in the district administration?

Bottom line: The community deserves to know exactly what went wrong, what it’s going to take to make things right and how to stop this cycle from repeating.

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