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Balancing Budget, Parcel Tax Before School Board Tuesday

Campus police officers would be retained under the proposed budget for the West Contra Costa school district. Possible extension of the current parcel tax is also on the agenda.

The West Contra Costa Unified School District, saying it has taken extensive measures to be fiscally responsible but nonetheless faces “enormous financial challenges” for the fourth year in a row, is set to adopt a 2011-12 budget Tuesday night to meet a July 1 deadline. Immediately after taking action on the budget, the school board is scheduled to vote on beginning to explore renewal of the current school-related parcel tax, which expires in the 2014-15 school year.

The proposed budget retains funding of police officers on school campuses through contract with local agencies despite earlier discussions of making cuts to the service.  The budget includes $420,000 to contract with El Cerrito Police for three officers, two at El Cerrito High School and one at Portola Middle School; $320,000 to pay for two officers in Pinole, with a third paid for by the city;  $160,000 to pay for an officer in Hercules with a second financed by that city; $876,000 to pay for six officers in Richmond with another paid for by the city; and $193,000 to pay for an officer through the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department. Both officers in San Pablo would be funded by the city. The total cost to the school district is close to $2 million.

The budget executive summary states, “For the third consecutive year the District has struggled with a budget adopted by the State that does not realistically solve a major deficit. The most recent budget proposal, the May Revise, seeks to solve the deficit problem by extending temporary taxes. Unfortunately, the action needed by the legislature has not occurred and the taxes needed remain uncertain, and may remain uncertain well into the school year. So for the fourth year in a row we include this statement: ‘This year the District is facing enormous financial challenges brought on by both internal and external factors.’ "

State and national economies have caused an “unprecedented loss in revenue," it says. “In addition, the constant revision of revenue deferral schedules coupled with the uncertainty that the funds will actually be available this coming year has made budget planning efforts all the more difficult.”

Despite “the greatest economic down turn in US history,” the summary says, the district has been fiscally responsible, taking such measures as closing schools, increasing class size, instituting furlough days, reducing employee and retiree benefits, and making efforts to raise taxes in the district to provide locally controlled funds for the schools. The district also eliminated “prep teachers” who taught subjects such as vocal music and PE to upper-elementary grade students to give their teachers time to prepare lessons. Kindergarten teachers, whose students have shorter school days, are now responsible for covering that prep time.

The district closed Castro Elementary School in El Cerrito, Adams Middle School in East Richmond Heights, and El Sobrante Elementary as well as a furniture warehouse and its Seaview center in June  2009. Closure of Lake School in San Pablo and Olinda, Grant and Kennedy in Richmond has been averted, at least for now, because of funding from those two cities. because the cost of housing the students at other sites was prohibitive. But the report says the district will relook at options for housing the dislocated students in order to close in June 2012.

Sale of surplus property has been identified as a means of addressing some of the district’s long-term debt, but the budget summary says that because of the decline in real estate values and the possibility that some properties might be needed in the future, that hasn’t happened. However, the district is looking at other ways it might use the properties to generate revenue because with them sitting empty the cost of their upkeep and insurance is taking away funds that could be used on occupied campuses.

Of the $171 million operating, or “unrestricted general fund,” in the budget, 72 percent is devoted to salaries and benefits.

The 2011-12 budget includes $9.2 million from Measure D,  the parcel tax passed in November 2008. The tax is 7.2 cents per square foot of building, or $108 a year for a parcel with a 1,500-square-foot building. Those funds include $3 million for library and athletic programs, $1.9 million toward keeping class size down in kindergarten through third grade, $750,000 for textbooks and teaching materials, $3 million toward salaries of teachers and counselors, and $537,000 for custodial support.

That measure expires in 2014-15. Immediately after discussion of the budget, the school board is scheduled to consider appointing two board members to form a subcommittee to hire a firm at a cost of up to $60,000 to poll voters to see if there is support for renewing the current parcel tax.

Another on the November 2010 ballot received 60 percent of the vote, . That tax would have started July 1, 2011 and expired after December 2015.

The budget is subject to review and approval by the state trustee and county superintendent. Any revisions needed in response to passage of the state budget will be presented to the board within 45 days of the governor signing the budget, according to the report to the school board.

The board meets at 6:30 Tuesday at Dejean Middle School, 3400 Macdonald Ave., Richmond.

The budget and board agenda and reports are available online. The budget discussion begins on page 96 of the board packet and the parcel tax item on 114.

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