District in financial quagmire | TahoeDailyTribune.com

District in financial quagmire

Facing a loss of at least $1 million next year from declining enrollment, South Lake Tahoe school officials held a sober discussion to plant the seeds for possible budget cuts.

Talks ranged from the price of utilities and non-teacher salaries required to run an elementary school — about $460,000 — to listing all educational programs in the district.

“We’re all going to have to leave our hats at the door,” said Superintendent Diane Scheerhorn, figuratively speaking about future unfavorable decisions.

Selling portable classrooms, renting out available space and charging for athletics and transportation were revenue-making ideas.

Some people raised the possibility of reaching out to the city’s business community in some fashion for financial relief.

“Knowing we’ve already dug deep, there will have to be digging again,” said Diane Head, chief financial officer for the district.

The discussion, held at a Lake Tahoe Unified School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, included principals and various staff from the district’s seven schools.

Laced throughout the enrollment discussions was average daily attendance. California provides $4,746 to Lake Tahoe Unified for each student. The money goes into a general fund that primarily pays for salaries.

Three enrollment graphs, which were displayed on large paper and tacked on the meeting room’s walls, showed five-year enrollment figures.

One graph had overall enrollment figures from elementary and secondary schools dropping from 5,659 students in the 1998-99 school year to 5,103 pupils this year.

Specifically, elementary enrollment, which enjoyed 2,808 students five years ago, has lost 521 students.

Elementary numbers are crucial because they are a watermark of future enrollment figures for the higher grades, officials said.

Overall, South Tahoe Middle School has seen a relatively slight decline of 100 students since 1998-99, while the high school is currently experiencing 75 more students than 1998-99’s level of 1,484 pupils.

The steady drop of enrollment figures coupled with the likelihood of future student losses has pushed LTUSD into a tight corner. Last year the district was initially going to release about 28 full-time equivalent teachers. Through retirements and number-crunching, many of the teachers listed on the chopping block were rehired, Scheerhorn said.

By January, the district should know if more staff reductions are needed. At that time, the governor’s budget will be revised and second-semester figures will be available.

“Once it starts snowing, when the weather starts changing in Tahoe, we see a trend of people that start leaving,” Scheerhorn said.

Jimmy Vaughn, president of the teachers’ union, said he will make sure everything is done legally if teacher reductions become a reality at the end of the school year.

“It’s just a tough situation all the way around,” Vaughn said. “The declining enrollment in the district is just the first symptom of a much larger problem. The middle class is leaving and this is a problem for the community as a whole, and (one that) not just the district needs to address. Everyone is going to be impacted by the core of the community, the middle class, leaving.”

Despite the foreboding news, Lennie Schwartz, school board president, assured those in attendance Tuesday night that the district is not bankrupt and has monetary reserves.

The district has $1.9 million in reserves for “economic uncertainties,” said Head, the chief financial officer.

California requires school districts have a reserve account of 3 percent of total costs. LTUSD has a 5 percent reserve.

The funds are designated for non-predicted emergencies, but likely won’t be used for the loss of enrollment money, Head said.

— Contact William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com.

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