Sac City Unified’s budget faces rejection – again. But surprise savings brighten the outlook

The financially troubled Sacramento City Unified School District will wrap up the school year with yet another disapproved budget, according to its business office.

But the school board also heard hopeful news at its meeting Thursday night, as Jacquie Canfield, the district’s contracted budget consultant, surprised many attendees by saying she had identified more than $5 million in savings after combing through the budget, correcting errors and eliminating funds that had been going unspent.

While the official budget report has yet to be submitted to the Sacramento County Office of Education, Canfield said it will be rejected despite recent cuts.

The district has already had its budget disapproved twice since August and has been under threat of a state takeover as it expected to run out of cash this fall. However, it recently announced it had temporarily dodged receivership by making cuts and using reserve funds to cover the remaining shortfall. Insolvency is now expected in October 2020, according to county schools Superintendent David Gordon.

Despite news of the pending budget rejection, the tone of Thursday’s board meeting was notably calmer than in recent months as Canfield went line by line identifying existing funds she had found in the budget that would help save programs that were destined for the chopping block.

Canfield said the district had overbudgeted and allocated money to expenses that were not used. Canfield, who started working on the budget in April after Chief Business Officer John Quinto’s resignation, combed through several of the thousands of budget lines, finding $5.3 million in savings.

“There is revenue we recognized that we built in the budget,” said board member Lisa Murawski.

For example, Canfield said, the district has long overbudgeted for 120 school bus drivers when it has been operating with only 95.

The district also double-counted some items, such as equipment for a sports program. The equipment was a one time expense that was budgeted for over multiple years.

Canfield also discussed an error recently uncovered in which more than 700 Sacramento City Unified students in five schools were not accounted for. Because school funding is based on student enrollment, the error had caused the district to underestimate its revenue by millions of dollars.

The California Department of Education’s software program should have helped flag the error, Canfield said.

The money identified by Canfield in her review allowed the budget team to preserve funds for SAT testing, music classes, athletics and more.

Tara Thronson, a parent and co-founder of Parents United to Restore Our Schools, called the budget updates infuriating after months of panic over which programs would be cut. The district recently laid off about 100 certificated staff members, mostly teachers.

At several previous board meetings, district employees took to the dais to ask that the district not cut their jobs and student support programs such as Gifted and Talented Education. Last month, students wept into the microphone, asking board members not to cut their music programs – a lifeline, they said, that allowed some of them to make friends and battle depression.

Canfield said that while nearly a dozen programs were sent to the chopping block just weeks prior, she was confident that the team could find the money to save them.

“I feel abused and I really don’t like that,” said Eric Thronson, who is married to Tara Thronson. “Everyone expects better from you all and we ask for better management, relationship between partners and better communication.”

The district noted its new policy that any expenditure larger than $5,000 must go before a committee for approval. However, “It sounds like we have a monitoring problem, and we need to fix that,” said board member Mai Vang. “When we search for a new chief business officer we can address that. We need to monitor every dollar at every school site.”

Other board and community members expressed concern over a lack of district transparency. They noted that the latest budget update was made available only at district headquarters, and was not distributed by email to the community until Monday evening.

District officials said ongoing changes and revisions made it difficult to distribute the budget report. They said they wanted to vet it internally and with the county schools office, since accuracy was crucial.

“We have struggled so much to maintain and rebuild public trust in this district, and we are moving forward,” said Murawski.

In addition to the budget crisis, a contract battle with the teachers union has been a source of strife in the district.

At the meeting Thursday, Sacramento City Teachers Association President David Fisher shared the union’s most recent proposal, made earlier Thursday when union officials met with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, board President Jessie Ryan, county Superintendent Gordon, and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna. There, union officials reiterated their primary concern: that their contract requires that the district redirect any health plan savings to support students, rescind layoffs and increase student services.

The union also proposed the redirection of the over-funding of retiree health insurance benefits; a 10 percent reduction in the use of outside contractors and consultants; and a 20 percent salary reduction of the very highest administrators. The teachers union also presented long-term plans to boost enrollment in the district and increase revenue.

The district still has millions more in cuts to make. County Superintendent Gordon sent a letter this week noting that the district must make $29 million in reductions no later than July 1, 2020, to eliminate deficit spending.

As the board meeting concluded Thursday, Gordon praised the district’s efforts.

“You have made good progress,” he said. “There have been setbacks and errors made, but that happens to everybody, and you have recovered well,” he continued.

“The question is what do you with the time you bought, and how do you use it wisely?”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.