The early voting results still have me stunned. There are numerous ballots that still need to be counted, but it looks like I’ve lost my seatmate, Sen. Andy Vidak.
And, Madera County Supervisor Rob Poythress may have barely lost in his attempt to replace Sen. Anthony Cannella.
This means the Republican Senate Caucus is going from 14, enough to stop votes requiring a two-thirds majority, to 12. The next two years do not look good for the Senate Republicans in Sacramento and the taxpayers in California.
Now is the time for good fiscal conservatives to join in the debates in the Capitol. School districts are hemorrhaging money and Democrats are beholden to public employee unions. Consequently, the best solutions will not be pursued and you will have to wait for a crisis to fix the mess.
This reminds me of a famous quote from Winston Churchill, where he observed that “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”
The San Diego Patch provides a review for its readership on the school districts in this beautiful county in the piece below.
Get ready for school boards and Sacramento to try everything else to address this fiscal conundrum before doing the right things.
Senator Predicts Financial Crisis In San Diego Co. Public Schools
In San Diego County, all 17 school districts operating in Patch communities reported deficits ranging from $14 million to $1.5 billion.
SAN DIEGO COUNTY, CA — California State Sen. John Moorlach may well be giving an encore performance of his role as the canary in the coal mine preceding Orange County’s bankruptcy almost a quarter-century ago when he correctly predicted financial disaster while a candidate for county treasurer-tax collector.
This time Moorlach, a certified public accountant who represents Orange County’s 37th District and serves on the Senate Budget & Fiscal Review Committee and its education subcommittee, isn’t concerned about county government. What bothers him now are the brewing money problems facing hundreds of school districts across California – including in San Diego County – experiencing what he sees as a growing deterioration of their financial stability.
In a report issued in October 2018, summarizing an analysis of the most recent financial statements issued by 944 K-12 school districts, Moorlach found more than 85 percent reported deficits on their general fund balance sheets, something he says indicates that many of these districts “could soon reach a tipping point into insolvency and receivership.”
Moorlach’s conclusion: “It’s not a pretty picture and it’s likely to get worse.”
In San Diego County, all 17 school districts operating in Patch communities reported deficits ranging from $14 million to $1.5 billion.
Moorlach’s report focused on the Unrestricted Net Position (UNP), an accounting function contained on a school district’s balance sheet portraying what is essentially the net worth of its general fund – the account from which it pays salaries, benefits, administrative costs, maintenance of school buildings and other general operating expenses such as insurance, consulting services and travel.
Michael Fine, chief executive officer of the Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), a state service designed to provide school districts with financial advice and management assistance, agrees that Moorlach’s analysis of UNP “is accurate and should not be dismissed.”
“However, it has little practical impact on the daily operations of California’s public school districts,” Fine told Patch. “Parents and taxpayers are unlikely to see any direct implications on programs and services purely by a growth in negative UNP.”
Unrestricted general fund revenues are primarily derived from local property taxes, state and federal financial aid not earmarked for specific – or restricted – purposes and other income such as parcel taxes. In many districts the unrestricted state and federal funding exceeds the amount of property tax revenues.
The UNP is just one of three components that in combination provide a detailed picture of just where a district stands financially at the end of its fiscal year.
A second component reports the value of capital assets such as school buildings and property after outstanding debt and depreciation has been subtracted – assets that cannot be used for operating purposes.
The third category reports assets restricted to federal and state programs such as special education. Most school districts consistently report positive results – or surpluses – in both of these categories.
But it’s the UNP that tells school officials just where their district stands when it comes to funds available for paying general operating costs and other expenses. For the majority of K-12 districts in California this significant number is negative, reflecting the fact a district has set aside insufficient assets to pay its obligations – including pension and other retiree benefits.
San Diego County School Districts’ UNP, Explained
A school district’s UNP is similar in concept to an individual’s personal finances where the value of what is owned such as cash investments, a home, cars and other personal property is subtracted from that what is owed, such as a mortgage, credit card debt and monthly expenses. The difference would be the individual’s net worth, a factor considered by banks when assessing the financial and credit quality of a loan applicant.
To provide a more accurate means of comparing and ranking school districts Moorhead divided the UNP deficits by the population in each district to produce a per capita apportionment. In theory this would be the amount each district resident would have to pay over and above existing school taxes to eliminate the general fund deficit in their district.
In San Diego County, the per capita UNP in Patch districts ranged from a negative $247 in the South Bay Union High School District to $2,139 in tiny Cardiff School District.
The larger the negative UNP per capita, the more likely a school district’s revenues are being used to pay pension and other retirement benefits, Moorlach said. “This means less funding for other programs and possible elimination of certain areas of study.”
“There is simply insufficient funding [for] K-12 to eliminate negative UNP at this time,” said Fine, who agreed with Moorlach that it will get worse before it gets better.
On average, over the past six years per-student state funding has grown 13 percent annually, Fine said, but that’s about to change because annual growth rate is expected to be less than 3 percent beginning with the next fiscal year.
This level of funding is “a fraction of what is needed to sustain programs and services to students,” said Fine, particularly after you factor in the entire spectrum of expenses incurred by school districts faced with declining enrollments and substantial increases in the cost of special education services.
“Every school district has a different and unique story,” says Moorlach.
But the common denominator is the growing cost of pensions and Other Post Retirement Benefits (OPEB). Salaries and benefits are major factors contributing to growing UNPs, Moorlach said, and every time districts increase employee salaries, there’s an attendant increase in retirement costs. This particularly impacts districts in areas with high costs of living.
San Diego County school districts have growing pension expenses due to the increasing amounts that must be contributed to the California State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) and the California State Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), San Diego County Office of Education spokeswoman Music Watson told Patch.
“The increases in these contributions, and in expenses for other post-retirement benefits (retiree healthcare, life insurance, etc.), are a substantial concern,” Watson said. “The way to mitigate the problem of unfunded liabilities is to increase contributions to STRS and PERS by school districts and employees, which is what is happening.”
Spiraling Costs Of Employee Pensions
During the past five years for which audited financial statements are available, salaries for teachers and other school employees have increased an average of 25 percent, while the cost of benefits has jumped by an average of almost 50 percent with some individual districts seeing increases in excess of 75 and 80 percent.
School districts have little control over the spiraling costs of their annual payments to employee pensions. All districts participate in both the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS), that provides pensions for teachers and the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) which handles pension for other district employees.
Each year these pension funds calculate the amount each district must contribute, rates that have been steadily increasing because both funds are significantly underfunded. In addition, the state makes contributions “on-behalf” of every district, money derived from California’s own general fund and included in the total amount the state budgets for education.
In 2017 direct payments from the state’s general fund to CalSTRS on-behalf of Patch school districts in San Diego County totaled $129.4 million in state payments, themselves contributing $182 million.
Combined, pension payments made directly by San Diego County Patch districts to both CalSTRS and CalPERS, over and above the state payments totaled $258.5 million in 2017.
Fine agrees that pension and OPEB contributions are fueling the growth of UNP and says by 2022 contribution rates will have more than doubled, a trend that “has a direct impact on the district’s ability to support its programs and deliver services.”
“Most districts use the ‘pay as you go’ method of funding, ignoring the long term liability,” says Fine. “This isn’t an unrealistic approach for most districts, but there are examples where a significant portion of [a] district’s annual budget designed to serve today’s students must be set aside to cover benefits for employees that served yesterday’s students.”
While the costs of employee benefits have steadily added to growing UNP deficits, the true magnitude of this subtle erosion in the financial stability of school districts has been hidden in footnotes to annual financial statements most taxpayers don’t bother to read.
However, beginning with the fiscal year ending in June 2015, new rules by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), an independent organization that sets financial accounting standards for state and local government, required pension liabilities to be included on the actual balance sheets.
Almost overnight California school districts were forced to increase their general fund liabilities – a major factor in calculating UNP – by millions of dollars. These numbers will only grow, further deteriorating UNP, when financial statements for the 2018 fiscal year begin appearing in December because those reports will reflect GASB’s requirement that additional millions in liabilities for retiree healthcare and other post-employment benefits must also be included on balance sheets.
What Can Be Done To Stem The Red Ink?
Moorlach believes one solution is stronger fiscal management. Another might be renegotiating labor contracts to reduce the cost of retiree medical benefits, something that’s anathema to the powerful teachers’ and other public employee unions.
“Other than that, districts need to have revenues in excess of expenditures every year and the net excess should be plowed into building reserves and reducing liabilities,” Moorlach said. “That’s how you run a fiscally distressed entity.”
To maintain sound fiscal health related to its operating fund, the Poway Unified School District, in collaboration with its employee groups, implemented salary rollbacks in 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to district spokeswoman Christine Paik. The rollbacks were restored in 2013 as the state economy was rebounding, she said.
In 2017, the district formed a community-based budget advisory committee to make recommendations around closing the structural deficit in the general fund.
“We anticipate continuing with that work this year, including budget workshops with the Board of Education and community budget forums,” Paik said.
“We have adopted a districtwide focus this year to increase student attendance in order to increase state funding,” she added. “District board and leadership will explore ways to balance next year’s budget while maintaining the quality educational programs for which Poway Unified is known.”
Oceanside Unified School District is also working to address student attendance and explore ways to bring in more revenue. Attendance has declined at the district for the past decade, according to district Deputy Superintendent Dr. Shannon Soto.
“We have a history over the last 10 years of declining enrollment of approximately 400 students every year,” Soto said.
Last spring, the district launched a pilot program that allowed students who missed school during the week to make up classes on Saturdays. This year, the district has already scheduled several Saturday make-up days at various school sites.
The program enables the district to recoup state funding lost due to student absences.
As The Financial Pressures Grow, Will School Districts Start Going Bankrupt?
Fine, whose FCMAT staff regularly deals with troubled school districts, doesn’t think so because the state is there to bail them out.
“Senator Moorlach’s analysis ignores the fact that in California, the state guarantees the continued operation of a public school district or community college by providing a backstop to fiscal insolvency,” Fine said. “Ultimately, when a school district becomes insolvent, the state legislature [makes] an emergency appropriation for that district. This has happened nine times since 1991.”
Moorlach said he’s not ignoring emergency state financial aid to insolvent districts, he just wonders where the state will come up with the resources to bail out multiple districts which might seek help simultaneously, noting the state’s “rainy day” fund only contains $13 billion.
“We’re creating a massive pretzel once a multi-year economic down cycle takes full effect. Then parents and taxpayers will understand what can happen when the fiscal squeeze is on,” said Moorlach. “Regretfully, then it will be too late. Forewarned is forearmed. The sooner we get in front of this the better.”
By Bob Porterfield with Patch Editor Kristina Houck contributing to this report.
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