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Consultant: Staffing cuts ahead for Ravenswood

Board member suggests calling in fiscal experts to help district with budget woes

Difficult budget decisions are looming for the Ravenswood City School District, where staff is projecting potential layoffs and the school board is turning to a national nonprofit for help scrutinizing its finances.

Budget concerns for the East Palo Alto district came to a head last year, when several years of deficit spending and declining enrollment prompted a threat of fiscal insolvency and close oversight from the San Mateo County Office of Education. The school board approved last spring $5 million in budget cuts, including layoffs that affected more than 80 classified staff. Ravenswood's total budget this year is about $43 million.

At a budget study session on Monday, the board's third since January, Chief Budget Officer Steve Eichman presented multi-year budget assumptions that include the potential — not yet recommended or approved — elimination of 10 full-time teachers, one principal and five classified positions in the next school year. The cuts total just under $2 million.

The district currently employs seven principals, 143 teachers and 177 classified staff, according to the district. Certificated and classified salaries and benefits make up 71 percent of this year's budget, according to a district budget report.

For the 2020-21 school year, the assumptions include cutting five full-time teachers and two classified positions for about $762,600 in savings.

Sheila Vickers, the vice president of School Services of California, a company that provides financial and management support to districts and whom the district asked to facilitate Monday's study session, reminded the trustees that most of the district's budget is allocated to personnel and that they will be "required to make some difficult choices when it comes time to balance your budget."

Vickers said that the financial pressures Ravenswood faces — declining enrollment, increasing pension costs, fluctuations in the governor's budget and others — are impacting school districts across the state. Ravenswood's student population has dipped by more than 1,000 in recent years, from 3,537 students in 2012 to current enrollment of about 2,393. The district attributes the decline, which it expects to continue, to an increasing number of families leaving East Palo Alto due to unaffordability and more students choosing to attend charter and private schools. This has serious financial implications as Ravenswood receives the lion's share of its funding from the state based on student-attendance rates.

As Ravenswood's student population shrinks, the board must take action to adjust the district's staffing levels accordingly, Vickers noted.

"The longer you wait, the more you have to cut. The earlier you take action, the less harmful it will be on your employees and your student programs," Vickers said. "The whole idea to taking action is to stabilize programs for the long run and have as much stability as you can for your student population."

The board must issue preliminary layoff notices to staff by March 15. While those notices can be rescinded, the district cannot legally issue more notices after that date.

As the newly constituted five-member board grapples with how to effectively evaluate the budget given the time and staff constraints, Vice President Stephanie Fitch pitched a new idea on Monday: accepting assistance from Education Resource Strategies, which helps school districts "transform how they use resources (people, time, and money)," the nonprofit's website states.

Fitch told the Weekly that Michelle Boyers, who works with the Ravenswood Education Foundation (REF), connected her with Education Resource Strategies. Fitch said the nonprofit could provide an "outside, unbiased and experienced" perspective on the district's finances. She hopes the nonprofit could help the district "streamline prioritizing our budget's highest needs" and especially cut down on outside consultants.

"I know it may seem hypocritical to hire a consultant to cut down on consultant costs, but REF is working on funding the costs for us, so their work won't actually cut into our budget like some unnecessary or redundant consultants might currently be doing," Fitch wrote in an email. "Consultant costs have been brought up a few times by members of the community, so as their representative I want to make sure we look into it."

Having an outside organization evaluate the budget also eliminates the possibility of "potential biases that people within the district might possibly have due to personal relationships with people," Fitch said.

Rhonda White, president of the Ravenswood Teachers Association, urged the board on Monday to actively include teachers, staff and parents in discussions about budget cuts.

Eichman said he would present the district's second interim budget to the board on March 14, the day before the layoff notice deadline. Board member Ana Pulido urged him to bring recommendations for budget cuts to the board sooner: "If we reach that March 15 date and three (board) members feel like they can't make that decision, it's going to be a burden for the district to carry."

The board has rescheduled a budget study session for Saturday, March 9, from 9-11 a.m. at the district office, 2120 Euclid Ave., East Palo Alto.

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