The financial future of San Dieguito Union High School District is one of projected deficits and rapidly eroding reserves.
On June 21, the board voted 4-0 (with John Salazar absent) to approve the 2018-2019 budget, which anticipates a $3.7 million deficit. Deficits of $5.3 million and $1.9 million have now been projected for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. The current year will end $8.3 million in the red.
The district’s combined reserve, currently standing at 10.7 percent, is expected to drop to 3.1 percent by 2020-2021. Just two years ago, the rate was close to 20 percent.
Parent Rita Macdonald addressed the board in public comment asking, “When are you going to do something about the deficit spending? By 2020, San Dieguito will be going bankrupt. That’s not a good look for a high-performing district.”
Despite the troubling fiscal picture, there was very little discussion among board members or staff about how to protect the district’s financial assets moving forward. The personnel costs for the district — with the highest teacher salaries in the county and steep administrative salaries as well — appear to be surpassing the district’s ability to finance them.
Salazar wrote that if he’d been there, he “would have cast the only No vote in protest to this budget. … If this Board cannot learn to say NO, we will soon face a crisis where we would have to start laying off teachers and class sizes would grow even larger. I believe we can stop the teacher layoffs from happening, but we need a plan which we currently do not have.”
Board member Maureen Muir attempted to add an amendment to the budget that would fund school-safety measures, such as perimeter fencing and ID checks, in their entirety. After the incidents at Torrey Pines High School, Muir said there should be “a sense of urgency” and that if the measures are not fully funded in the budget, “then they’re not a priority.”
Muir also expressed exasperation at the board meeting that she’d been attempting to reach Tina Douglas, the associate superintendent of business services, on the topic for two months to no avail. Douglas replied that the costs for the safety measures would have to be figured out in time as they got rolled out in phases. No one seconded Muir’s motion.
Douglas and Chief Financial Officer Delores Perley did not respond to The Coast News’ requests for information about the budget.
Waiting your turn
Lea Wolf’s public-records request from May 31 was met by a district letter on June 26 that stated, “Due to the high volume of outstanding public records requests that still require review … it is anticipated that these [records] will be provided on or before December 10, 2018.”
Wolf forwarded the letter to several people who commented on the surprisingly long wait. Elaine Kooima, parent of a student who graduated from the district in 2015, shared that in the past she had kept trying to contact the district with “minimal response.” She wrote to Wolf and others, “Sad. Stalling … information drip … so people give up. This has been going on for years.”
Wolf was not deterred and wrote back to the district expressing her rights by law to the information.
Above the law?
San Dieguito still has not reinstated the Torrey Pines student whose expulsion the county overturned and ordered expunged. Education code 48924 makes it clear that the county board of education’s decision “shall be final and binding upon the pupil and upon the governing board of the school district.” Further, the order is “final when rendered.”
The student should have been re-enrolled in June immediately after the San Diego County Office of Education ruled on May 31, through an appeal, to overturn the district’s expulsion decision. As of this writing, the boy’s status still registered as expelled. Rick Ayala, director of pupil services and alternative programs, did not respond to a request for clarification as to why the district had not complied with the county’s legally binding decision. Board President Beth Hergesheimer emailed that “staff is continuing to work on the matter of getting him enrolled.”
The student, whose identity is protected here due to privacy concerns surrounding expulsion and minors, spoke during public comment at the board meeting. He said his continued exclusion from school “deeply harms my reputation.” Nonetheless, he offered — as he had before in public comment — to speak at district schools about what he had done so that other students could learn from his mistake. The student announced a fundraiser he was participating in to raise money to teach children how to swim as a safeguard against drowning, a leading cause of accidental death for children.
The student’s education advocate, Curtis Davis, warned the district during public comment that because the boy’s right to return to school has not been upheld, “There will be litigation, and it didn’t have to be that way.”
An unenforceable contract
Superintendent Eric Dill’s resignation on May 25 left the district without much time to hire a permanent replacement before the next school year begins. The hired search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates, estimates that it will take until October to instate a new long-term superintendent.
Dill’s contract states: “In all cases the Superintendent immediately shall notify the Board of Education upon being informed that he has been selected to interview for a position with another employer.”
Salazar and Muir said they were not informed of Dill’s interview. Muir explained via email that when Dill called her to say he was taking a position elsewhere and would soon be leaving, “I reminded him that he was in violation of his contract (the one he signed) — the Superintendent must notify the board if they [sic] looking/interviewing for another job. He just said, something like, ‘oh, well.’”
Dill’s contract does not contain any language about what the financial or other consequences would be if that interview clause were violated. As such, it’s unclear what recourse, if any, the board has. When asked about it, Hergesheimer emailed, “It is always unsettling when a district administrator gives notice … and I am sad to see Mr. Dill go. The language you refer to was not in any prior superintendent’s contract, and I do not believe that there is any other district language regarding this topic. Mr. Dill did give our district over a month’s notice that he was leaving.” Her email, however, did not address whether Dill had given notice that he was interviewing.
Changing of the guards
Larry Perondi, who will serve as interim superintendent starting July 1, speaks with friendly confidence about his upcoming assignment. When asked if he was aware of certain complaints and concerns regarding San Dieguito, he said he has purposefully steered clear of delving in early, stating, “I’ll take over when I take over. When I assume the duties of the position, I’ll do the work of the district. As a superintendent, you deal with tough issues, but you do the best you can and make decisions that are in the best interest of children.”
When asked about the importance of transparency for parents, the press and the public, Perondi remarked, “The work of a public school superintendent is ‘public.’ You have to be a good steward of information and follow up in an appropriate timeline.”
Perondi retired in 2014 after serving as the superintendent of Oceanside Unified School District for seven years. He said he wanted to leave “while he still had something in the tank.” After retiring, he worked as a leadership coach and considered his status as being “rewired rather than retired.”
Perondi was approached about taking the temporary helm of San Dieguito and accepted after discussing the position with his family. “The work will keep me current and allow me to assist the district with the skills I’ve developed over the years,” he explained. Perondi has no interest in assuming a permanent superintendent role at San Dieguito. He joked that when it was over he’d put on shorts and a T-shirt and return to a more relaxed pace.