Facing a projected $47.8 million budget deficit in the 2020-21 fiscal year, the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) held a community forum Monday with the stated aim of launching a public input process to determine where cuts should be made, including at the staff level.
While the district will start its cost-cutting process by identifying savings in non-salary and administrative positions, “those reductions alone will not be sufficient to address the total reductions necessary,” officials said.
Increased expenditures, in large part due to skyrocketing employee retirement costs, along with an unexpected reduction in revenue growth were cited by the district as reasons it is spending $39.9 million more than it is bringing in for fiscal year 2019-2020. While the district is using one-time funding sources to cover that deficit, they won’t be available next fiscal year, so cost-saving decisions must be made, according to Dr. Tony Wold, associate superintendent, Business Services for WCCUSD.
Wold and Superintendent Matthew Duffy said the district will first look to cut non-salary expenditures, then administrators, which have grown in numbers from 254 in 2015-2016 to the current 284 (with most of those positions being assistant principals). Those 284 administrators in total cost the district $37 million, so cuts made in this area won’t be nearly enough to solve the deficit, Wold said.
With 80 percent of the district revenues paying for staff such as teachers, custodians and counselors, WCCUSD will have no choice but to look at reductions at the staff level, including vacant positions and those deemed not core to the district’s mission, according to Duffy.
The budget deficit follows an agreement by the district and teachers union in 2018 to spend roughly $37 million on salary increases for teachers, with the aim of keeping teachers from leaving for better paying districts, and to reduce class sizes.
The district currently “has no plans for the next school year to close or merge any schools,” Duffy said. But with some schools falling in attendance, it’s a question that should be examined in the coming years, he added.
“Right now [closing or merging schools is] not at the top of our list or even on our list at all,” Duffy said, adding the district would rather deal with that issue when it is not under “urgent budget pressure.”
The superintendent, whose performance has been called into question by members of the Board of Education, said the district plans to meet with stakeholders over the next few months to find out which cuts would have the least impact on student outcomes. He urged the public to fill out this survey to inform the district of its priorities.
How did the district get here?
WCCUSD cites a significant spike in contributions to employee retirement benefits, which are impacting local governments across the state, as a big factor in its budget shortfall, as the cost has more than doubled, Wold said. The cost is now $26 million per year more than it was five years ago, he said.
While those retirement numbers were both forecast and anticipated, Wold said, a reduction in revenue growth that included a slowing in state funding was not. In addition, WCCUSD is receiving $5 million less over the last couple of years due to declining enrollment and student attendance (the state funds districts based upon a district’s student attendance). In 2010, WCCUSD students attended school 95 percent of the time, and now it’s at 93 percent. Enrollment at WCCUSD schools has reduced by about 1,000 students since 2010, from 29,078 to 28,121.
Other costs, including for the district’s growing population of special education students, have increased. Total expenditures for special education have gone up from $74 million in 2016-17 to $84 million in 2018-2019, according to the district.
A contested survey
Touting a need for transparency and community input, Wold and Duffy urged members of the public to fill out the survey by Dec. 19. Results will be shared with the Board of Trustees in January and will play an important role in cost-cutting decisions moving forward, they said.
Some in the community are skeptical. Today, the Richmond-based nonprofit RYSE Youth Center posted a statement criticizing the survey process as a false act of transparency and a “distraction” from an “utter lack of financial accountability” by the district.
“We are highly uncomfortable that the burden of solving decades of system failure has been reduced to a divisive survey that overwhelmingly puts student-centered services on the chopping block without any context, any grounded methodology, and without integration of student-centered and student-driven data,” according to the RYSE Center’s statement.
The RYSE Center called on the district to halt any survey unless reviewed and conducted by a third, non-district party, cease cuts to “student-centered expenses,” put more focus on data-centered solutions and get to the bottom of where overspending may have happened.
By the numbers
The WCCUSD is made up of 56 schools, including 33 elementary schools, five K-8, six middle schools, seven high schools and five alternative schools. They operate in El Cerrito, Hercules, Pinole, Richmond and San Pablo. Of the total WCCUSD student population, 52 percent are Latino, 18 percent black, 10 percent Asian, 11 percent white, five percent Filipino, and three percent multiracial. Nearly 10,000 of the students are English learners and 20,310 are low income, according to the district.
The district also has 14 charter schools, and overall enrollment in charter schools increased by 5,000 over the last 20 years, according to the District.