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School’s Effort To Cover Costs Drains Reserves : Education: The county superintendent asks six districts for budget projections to explain how they will get back in black.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Squeezed between stagnant state funding and rising costs, three-quarters of Ventura County’s 20 school districts are spending more than they expect to take in this budget year, and six districts--including the Conejo Valley and Ventura unified districts--have dangerously low reserves, the county superintendent’s office says.

The county agency has instructed the six districts with low reserves and high deficit spending to supply budget projections for the next two budget years, explaining how the districts plan to get back in the black.

“We felt that, because of the level of their deficit spending, we would like to look at their budget projections for the future,” said Kenneth H. Prosser, director of school business and advisory services for the county office.

Prosser recently sent letters to the Conejo Valley Unified, Ventura Unified, Pleasant Valley Elementary, El Rio Elementary and Moorpark Unified school districts, asking for information on how they plan to stop the flow of red ink.

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He also sent a letter to Oxnard School District, warning that the district’s projections “show a level of deficit spending resulting in a 1.8% available reserve. . . . Failure to minimize deficit spending could jeopardize the future financial standing of the district.”

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In an interview, Prosser elaborated on what he sees as a disturbing trend. “By no means are those districts facing insolvency,” he said. “But insolvency could result if they continue to spend at the same level.”

School officials across the county said they have labored to reduce expenses and hope to bolster reserves by spending less than budgeted for the upcoming school year.

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“We have been working very diligently to reduce our expenses,” said Carmela Vignocchi, assistant superintendent of finance with Moorpark Unified. “And it’s getting increasingly difficult to maintain our reserves.”

Moorpark schools have left vacant at least 10 administrative positions in the last four years, Vignocchi said. Yet, with this year’s revenues nearly $1 million short of expenses, the Moorpark district’s reserve has dropped to 2.44%.

The California Department of Education recommends that districts with fewer than 30,000 students--which includes all districts in Ventura County--keep a reserve of at least 3% of their total expenses. Districts can get in trouble when they allow reserves to drop below that figure and are unable to rebuild the nest egg, Prosser said.

“School districts in the last few years have tended to spend their reserve because it’s the only way to maintain programs. Often they have been able to replace those reserves,” Prosser said. “But regardless, we would like to see their future spending projections.”

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District officials say that, given state budget cuts in the last three years, they have to make ends meet with very little.

“Because state funds have decreased, our deficit has gone up 11% to 12% compared to one-half percent three years ago,” said Sarah Hart, assistant superintendent of business services at Conejo Valley Unified. “We understand that the state has significantly less tax revenues. We are not blaming them.”

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Officials with the state Department of Education said more than half of California school districts are spending more than they are receiving in revenue. What’s more, officials predict no increase in state funding any time soon.

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“Most districts are deficit spending. They depend pretty much on the state for their income, and the state is not coming up with that money,” said Janet Sterling, manager of the state education department’s Office of School Financial Report. “It’s just the state of the economy.”

If state revenues continue to be flat, Prosser said, schools throughout Ventura County will have to develop new ways to finance education.

“Schools don’t have a lot of options, but they are trying to do everything they can to maintain important school programs,” Prosser said. “They may make more cuts, look for grants or come up with new ways to raise money.”

While state aid to schools has remained steady since 1991, inflation has contributed to an increase in costs. So districts have tried to come up with creative ways to reduce expenses while minimizing reductions in school programs.

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“Reductions in the classroom are the last thing we want to do,” said Hart of Conejo Valley Unified. “We have made several cuts, mainly in administrative positions.”

Since 1991, Conejo Valley Unified budget reductions have included a 3% salary cut for teachers, managers and supervisors; an increase in employees’ health benefit deductible from $150 to $250, and the elimination of at least 10 management and 30 support staff positions and 20 teaching assistants.

In addition, Conejo Valley Unified in the 1993-94 school year began to charge parents $400 a year per student for bus transportation.

Likewise, other districts, such as Oxnard Elementary, Ventura Unified and Moorpark Unified, have drastically reduced the number of management and support staff.

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The Oxnard School District projects a $2.3-million deficit in this year’s budget, the highest in the county.

Although the 13,000-student district’s reserve is near the 3% recommended by the state, district officials predict that it will drop to less than 2% in the 1995-96 budget year, which worries county officials.

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Oxnard School District officials said they hope to be able to save up to $600,000 during this school year by keeping a tight rein on spending. “We are closely monitoring our expenses and we feel that our budget is manageable,” said Supt. Bernard Korenstein.

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“If we get to the point in which we feel we are in jeopardy, we will have to make more drastic reductions,” Korenstein said. “We just don’t know where.”

Officials with Ventura Unified, one of the largest districts in the county with 15,000 students, said they are surviving because of money saved after severe cuts imposed in the last three years.

“We have to use our savings to balance our current budget,” said Georgeann Brown, director of budget and finance for Ventura Unified. “We are surviving at the same level of money we received in 1991-92. We hope by 1996-97 we will be able to get additional funds from the state.”


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