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VUSD tackling significant budget deficit

VISTA — A budget crisis is affecting how the Vista Unified School District is approaching the next several years.

The Fiscal Crisis Management Team (FCMAT) from the California School Information Services is keeping a close eye on the district’s negative operating budget and steps the district is taking to rein in millions in deficit.

The district and FCMAT agreed in February to review the General Fund budget and use it to develop a baseline for a multi-year projection for this and the next two fiscal years, according to a report from FCMAT.

The district’s 2018-19 budget projects deficit spending of $10.7 million, but a surplus of $377,438 by 2019-20 and a deficit of $1.5 million in 2020-21. The district’s 2019-20 General Fund expenses for this operating budget totals $262.5 million, according to Lisa Contreras, the district’s director of communications.

“Right out of the gate, we were facing financial difficulties,” said Superintendent Dr. Linda Kimble, who was hired in 2018. “So, we began a budget reduction process. We created a list of reductions that came to the board.”

One challenge, according to the report, was the increase of deficit spending from 2016-18 totaling $20.3 million.

As a result, the district is facing between a $15 million to $19 million deficit for this fiscal year, she said. This year, she added, an additional $2.5 million must be cut; and looking to 2020-21, the district cannot meet its reserve requirement, according to the report.

However, the district has cut dozens of jobs, especially in the administration office, Kimble said. Also, other employees have been laid off as a result of the budget deficit.

“We’ve eliminated a ton at the district level, and I would say we are pretty lean,” Kimble said. “So, what’s next? That’s where we find ourselves.”

According to the report, the district was spending 90.2% of its General Fund budget on salaries and benefits, compared to the statewide average of 87.06% in 2017-18, the last year data was available.

Up next is potentially cutting back on some programs within the district, although Kimble said the goal is to ensure not as many educational opportunities for students are cut. In addition, she said the board could look at cutting transportation, although she doesn’t recommend it, reviewing the eight-period day at Rancho Buena Vista and Vista high schools and providing elective and counseling at elementary schools.

“Now it really becomes difficult because we’re looking at services that impact kids,” Kimble added.

The financial struggles are also due in part to declining enrollment, a declining birth rate, increasing pension costs and competition from charter schools. The district’s enrollment has decreased by 982 students in the last three years and has declined from 27,6751 in 2000-01 to 21,118 in 2018-19, Contreras said.

And since the district has students across the funding spectrum, as calculated by the state, those revenue losses are greater.

“Places where there is a higher amount coming per student tend to have more charter activity,” Kimble said.

Other steps the district has taken to mitigate its budget deficit include maximizing attendance, identifying unduplicated students, applying facility use fees, spending and hiring freezes on a case-by-case basis, reviewing all expenditures, restricting funds allocated to all qualifying expenditures, monitoring class size and reviewing all special needs budgets, Contreras said.

In addition, she added, the board will review and consider consolidating schools (Olive Elementary School was closed last year), a parcel tax, charging a 3% administration fee on developer fees collected and evaluate storage surplus.

“We are taking the budget situation seriously and the board will be taking the FCMAT report recommendations and input from staff, teachers, students and the community for the budget,” Contreras said.

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