Thursday, July 07, 2011

Schools' Financial Watchdog Stripped of Powers

Schools' Financial Watchdog Stripped of Powers
Jul 6, 2011
by Emily Alpert

When parents and teachers plead and protest to save beloved programs and people, strapped school districts have had to think twice about whether it is prudent, knowing a higher power is watching.

County offices of education can refuse to sign off on unsound budgets and force school districts to rewrite them if financial projections are flimsy. They can even stop districts from cutting checks. And they have forced school districts to plan two years into the future, explaining publicly how their budgets will be balanced.

Now those powers are on hold.

Schools still have to show the county office that they can get through this coming school year. But this year, the county office cannot judge their budgets for the next year or the year after, the first step that can trigger more intensive interventions to keep school districts solvent. School districts can just disregard their advice on how to keep themselves afloat in the future.

The changes, made with little public discussion, came in an 11th-hour budget passed by Democratic lawmakers last week. They put a pause on oversight powers that were given to county offices of education two decades ago, after several school districts suffered financial meltdowns.

Now the biggest watchdog over school budgets has been pulled back at a time when more and more districts are weighing financial peril against the yearning to cancel painful, unpopular cuts.
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"School districts are under a lot of pressure," said Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent of business services at the San Diego County Office of Education. "It's hard sometimes to withstand that pressure."

Financial hawks lambasted lawmakers for cutting back on budget oversight and pressed the governor to veto that part of the bill. School Services of California, which advises school districts on finances, argued it would put hundreds at risk of insolvency. The president of the California School Boards Association called it "a statutory invitation to fiscal recklessness."

Teachers unions cheered the move. They argue the decisions should rest solely with the local school board members that voters elect and oust.

County offices tend to be more financially cautious than school boards, a step removed from the political and emotional turmoil of school cuts. While the San Diego County Office of Education does have an elected board, it attracts much less public attention and protest.

"Their budgets are not going to be changed or rejected by someone else," said Jim Groth, a longtime Chula Vista teacher and a board member for the California Teachers Association, the biggest teachers union in the state. "It puts the decision-making back on local districts and local school boards."...

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