School Closure Advised | TahoeDailyTribune.com

School Closure Advised

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Without the institution of a two-thirds voter-approved parcel tax or unlikely growth in enrollment, Lake Tahoe Unified School District would need to close a school, an education firm recommended.

Ron Bennett, president and chief executive officer for School Services of California, used a report that analyzed the district to address the board of education and a concerned audience regarding the bleak future bred from declining enrollment and a state budget crisis.

Bennett said a facility closing should happen in the 2004-05 school year.

“If you’re going to close a school, do it right,” Bennett said. “Do it slowly.”

Angela Swanson, president of the Sierra House Elementary Parent-Teacher Association, said she doesn’t feel her school will be targeted despite parking lot rumors and headlines of the school’s possibly shutting down.

A school closure would save the district $460,000 in the price of utilities and non-teacher salaries.

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“Sierra House parents believe we need to have a fair process in determining if a school needs to be closed and which school it will be,” Swanson said.

Bennett expects a grim three-year projection for the district where deficits will grow from the current year’s shortfall of $1.4 million. In 2003-04 the projection of expenditures over revenue is $1.7 million while the figure would grow to $2 million in 2004-05.

The 2005-06 projected deficit is $2.2 million.

The projections exclude any impacts from the $35 million budget shortfall that Gov. Gray Davis announced this year.

Without a growth in enrollment or revenue, rising costs in places such as health benefits and teacher salaries will drive the district further into the red, Bennett concluded.

“In my optimist views, for you, things will not be better,” Bennett said.

Bennett compared LTUSD to 20 other Northern California districts with similar size, economic characteristics and geographical area as well as the statewide and comparative districts’ average.

In the comparison, LTUSD ranked 19 in total revenue. As for total costs, the district ranked 16 out of 23.

The report paid attention to the percentage of revenue channeled to salaries and benefits. The district, which uses 83 percent of its total $37.6 million in revenues towards salaries, ranked third in percentage of expenditures for all salaries and employee benefits.

In California, Bennett said the average is 81 percent.

“If you get above 81 percent, things are getting tough,” he said.

Districts with declining enrollment, which account for about half in the state, usually have a high percentage of revenue going towards salaries. It refers to a tendency of districts with decreasing students letting go of teachers who lack seniority and high pay.

The solution is to create an attractive early retirement package, an option that South Tahoe Educators Association President Jimmy Vaughn embraced.

Every two years the retirement package can change. Since last year’s wasn’t altered, Vaughn said the retirement package was modified to attract teachers to early retirement this year.

Vaughn was irked by the districts used for the comparison. Many of the districts used for teacher salary negotiations were not included in Bennett’s list.

“(School Services of California) do good research but their projections overstate expenses and understate revenue,” Vaughn said.

Lennie Schwartz, president of the school board, downplayed the significance of the report in the district’s final decision regarding the financial problem.

“We’ll use this like we use input from parents and teachers,” Schwartz said. “This won’t be the sole document to answer the decision.”

— E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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