Asbestos scare puts tiny O.C. school district on financial brink

Asbestos scare put tiny O.C. school district on the brink of insolvency

A small Orange County school district that was forced for close campuses and bus students elsewhere in the wake of an asbestos scare is now reeling under a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

"You went from being a stable district to a district that's facing insolvency," Wendy Benkert, assistant superintendent for business services at the Orange County Department of Education, told trustees for Ocean View School District.

Benkert said the district has run through $2.9 million of $4.3 million in general fund emergency reserves and faces an additional $9.2 million in costs related to asbestos removal and a modernization project at 11 schools.

Should the Huntington Beach school district fail to close its $7.8-million shortfall, it might need emergency funding or could be taken over by the state, Benkert warned.

"But I believe with prudent decisions you can turn this around," she said.

Asbestos was detected in some classrooms during the modernization project that began in July. The cleanup has closed three schools and left many parents furious as they have watched their children — more than 1,600 in all — be temporarily bused to classes at eight schools in four districts.

As the crisis has unfolded, district officials have remained in close contact with the Orange County Department of Education, which has oversight responsibility.

Benkert proposed several options for school board members, such as scaling down or delaying some construction work or selling an unused school site. Such a sale, however, probably wouldn't happen quickly enough to shore up the district's deficit, she said. Also, legal requirements would force the district to offer any open space on an unused site to the city first for a below-market rate.

Nicole Knight Shine writes for Times Community News.

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