REGION — A Torrey Pines High School graduation flier recently emailed to parents advertised a $5,000 VIP package. Doubling as a donation to the TP Education Fund, the expensive package promised 10 “exclusive” spots on the field at graduation as well as two “preferred” parking spots and a gift basket. The ad exhorted parents to act fast because, “There are only 3 remaining!”
Requests for large donations are par for the course at San Dieguito Union High School District, which faces a projected $8.3 million deficit this school year over its $134.6 million general fund revenues. The district will have tough questions to ask when the board reconvenes on June 21 to approve next year’s budget.
SDUHSD anticipates deficits of $4.4 million and $3.5 million for the next two respective school years and foresees a surplus of only about $271,000 for 2020-2021.
The district’s reserves, akin to a rainy-day fund, stood around 20 percent just two years ago — an impressive savings. According to a district report, SDUHSD expects to finish the year with 10.8 percent reserves and the 2020-2021 year with 6.6 percent reserves.
Board member John Salazar is concerned by what he calls “fiscal mismanagement at its most basic level.” He attributes the deficit to the teacher raises, which he did not vote for, of 12.5 percent in 2015 and 0.5 percent in 2017.
The district has the highest teacher salaries by far in San Diego County.
According to a report on certificated salaries issued by the California Department of Education’s School Fiscal Services Division, the lowest teacher salary offered at SDUHSD last year was $61,449. Nearby school district San Marcos Unified’s minimum salary, by contrast, was $37,922.
The second-highest minimum salary offered by a San Diego County school district was La Mesa-Spring Valley Elementary’s $54,678. That’s still almost $7,000 less than SDUHSD’s lowest-tier compensation. The vast majority of county schools reported starting salaries in the $40,000s.
In addition, SDUHSD’s average teacher salary of $103,417 was the only six-figure one of any district in San Diego County.
In an email correspondence with The Coast News, Salazar stated, “We have excellent teachers in our District and they deserve the most we can pay them. But, as a public entity, the District should not make financial promises that it cannot keep.”
He further warned, “Unfortunately, if the District continues at this rate of deficit, it could be faced with bankruptcy and the teachers’ contracts would have to be re-negotiated.” He said it’s the school board’s responsibility to ensure “that the District is run properly, professionally and remains fiscally sound.”
Board President Beth Hergesheimer identified one of the main contributors to the district’s deficit as the “increasing burden our state has placed on school districts to pay a growing percentage of retirement contributions with no additional dollars from the state for this cost.”
She further stated in her email, “Our reserves have also been diminished by years of reduced state funding.” Hergesheimer said the board will continue to seek savings “wherever possible,” including cutting back on utilities by using more solar energy and applying carryover funds to bolster the year-end balance.
Superintendent Eric Dill expressed frustration with what he sees as a lack of adequate per-student funding from California. “The most prosperous state in the wealthiest nation in the world should not settle for below-average investment in our students,” he wrote.
As for Dill’s plan to get SDUHSD back in the black (surplus), he pointed to “holding our staffing wherever possible and capturing savings from retirements when we hire newer employees at a lower salary range.” He also said the district would continue to seek ways to become more efficient in its operations and that its budgets are “worst-case scenarios” that tend to improve by the end of the year.
The board has also been generous with its administrator pay. The superintendent salary is $235,400, while four associate superintendents are each paid $196,443. Those amounts do not include benefit costs, which are substantial.
All told, salaries and benefits comprise 84 percent of the district’s spending, which is not an unusually high percentage for school districts. But when one factors in the high salary rates, that 84 percent presents a funding allocation that could be hard to sustain.
Only 4 percent of the budget goes toward books and supplies.
Should district prioritize reducing class sizes?
A Torrey Pines parent who wished to remain anonymous due to hateful comments directed at Wendy Gumb, the parent who has petitioned for a recall election of board member Joyce Dalessandro, has many misgivings about her child’s high school.
First of all, she believes that the class sizes are too big. According to California Department of Education data, the average class size for the district for the 2016-2017 school year was 31.7. The county average was 24.9 and the state average 23.9.
In perusing the current class schedule for SDUHSD high schools, it was not uncommon to find more than 40 students in English, math, biology, Spanish and Advanced Placement classes. Some P.E. classes had 55 students enrolled. Canyon Crest Academy’s average social science class last year contained 37 students.
“How do students feel a sense of community at school when they’re educated in a sardine can?” the upset parent asked.
Making class sizes smaller does not come cheaply. As Hergesheimer put it, “It costs our district about $1 million per year in increased staffing costs to reduce class sizes by one student throughout the district.” Another estimate was $1.375 million.
The district-wide ratio of school counselors to students is 1 to 482. There are four social workers for SDUHSD’s 13,000 students. The concerned Torrey Pines parent believes that for all the money being spent on personnel, SDUHSD is coming up short on its responsibility to serve its students first. She’d like to instead see money allocated to smaller classes and the hiring of more counselors.
Are the kids all right?
According to a Healthy Kids Survey administered in 2017, about one-third of students at the district’s high schools reported not feeling like a part of their school or being unsure about that status. Furthermore, 38 percent of female and 21 percent of male high school students at SDUHSD reported feeling so sad that they stopped doing some of their usual activities.
Levels of depression and suicide among teens have been rising nationwide, according to many studies, and SDUHSD’s students, unfortunately, appear to be no exception.
In 2017, there was the devastating fatal shooting of a Torrey Pines freshman who aimed a BB gun at police officers in what was deemed a suicidal act. Dill confirmed a second suicide of a district student, but due to the family’s request for privacy, no details were available.
Dill said the district “added a suicide prevention plan at the beginning of this school year and we continue to provide training to staff and students to know the signs of at-risk behavior and empower students to find help for their friends.”
Next year the district will adopt several initiatives aimed at cultivating student wellness and connectedness. The middle schools will implement the Start with Hello initiative that addresses social isolation. Students will be taught ways to be inclusive at school, including how to reach out to others who may feel lonely and left out.
The high schools will adopt the “Say Something initiative that teaches students ways to identify warning signs, particularly on social media, that someone could be a threat to others or himself/herself. The initiatives are part of the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by several family members of the victims killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Salazar would like the district to adopt later start times and hire more counselors and mental health professions. Hergesheimer is optimistic about the impact the Sandy Hook Promise program will have and said the school sites study the Healthy Kids Survey “and have ongoing conversations as to how they might continue to improve student connection.”
Board members Joyce Dalessandro, Amy Herman and Maureen Muir did not respond to requests for comment. As of this writing, neither the audio nor the minutes from the May 10 board meeting had been posted to SDUHSD’s website.