In Shoreline proposal, 12 jobs lost and Bodega school closed

David Briggs
Forty-five letters from Bodega Bay urged Shoreline to drop the idea of shutting down the town’s elementary school, part of a proposal to close a $1.2 million budget deficit exacerbated by a slew of recent hires and a settlement with one of the district’s highest-paid employees. With board discussions on the proposal ahead, Superintendent Tom Stubbs said everything is on the table. 
08/28/2014

The closure of Bodega Bay School, layoffs of one-eighth of the workforce and a temporary cancellation of summer school are the three pieces of a proposal Superintendent Tom Stubbs and other administrators presented at last week’s school board meeting for righting Shoreline’s troubled finances and fending off losing control to a state-appointed panel.

Based on the suggestions of an ad hoc budget committee, Mr. Stubbs, the principals and chief business official Susan Skipp—who announced Thursday that she will retire on Jan. 30—outlined $1.8 million in cuts over the two coming school years. In a tentative proposal that will be discussed at a special board meeting tonight at Tomales Elementary and at Tomales High on Sept. 11, the administrative cabinet suggested closing Bodega Bay School, saving at least $200,000 annually; permanently eliminating six full-time teachers, saving $480,000; permanently eliminating six full-time support staff, saving $210,000; and temporarily ending the summer enrichment program for K-8, saving $40,000. If some employees retire within the next school year, employees who receive pink slips may be reinstated, Mr. Stubbs said.

The district projected it will blow through a $4.65 million reserve and spiral into a $1.2 million deficit by the end of the 2017 school year. The fiscal crisis was exacerbated by nearly a dozen additional hires that occurred in June—added hours for the superintendent, a high school English teacher and instructional assistant to replace retirements, a new high school counselor after Steffan O’Neill was transferred to Tomales Elementary and two part-time principals while former principal Jane Realon was placed on special assignment writing grants, among other replacements. 

This spring, Ms. Skipp first alerted the county that Shoreline was headed into budget trouble. Federal funding to compensate for lost property tax revenue from the national seashore’s creation and to subsidize the children of Coast Guard employees had always come erratically, in wild swings as low as $870,000 and as high as $3.93 million in 2012-13. When the federal government last year repaid all it owed and set future funding at a constant $1.68 million, Shoreline was left with a structural problem of expenditures outpacing revenue by about $1.5 million per year.

At an Aug. 14 meeting with Mr. Stubbs, Ms. Skipp and several trustees, county superintendent Mary Jane Burke alerted the district that a budget review showed a deficit “much higher than anticipated” based on the recent hires. But she still gave the budget conditional approval, allowing the district to submit a plan by Sept. 30 to drastically cut expenditures; otherwise, if specific cuts are not identified in a formal resolution, the district could forfeit financial control to the state.

“For many years, you’ve been mercifully—I don’t want to say the word saved—but helped by federal dollars. But you built your economy around that bonus every year and now you have some serious work to do in restructuring your budget,” Terena Mares, the assistant county superintendent of business services, said in a presentation at the start of the meeting. “We cannot approve a budget that has a [$1.2 million] problem. We have the opportunity and legal allowance to flat-out disapprove a budget that has that kind of problem. That takes away all control. But we don’t know your community like you do. This is basically a very serious message from us that we are not exercising that right, but that we can.”

A small group from Bodega Bay School protested the cuts most loudly, angry that the administration could suggest closing a school so quickly after the idea was first analyzed in June and without communicating the possibility to parents or holding a meeting in the area, a sentiment with which trustee Jim Lino and others concurred.

“You had no conversation with the families that are going to be impacted, no conversation with the community of Bodega Bay. Our school is an essential part of our community,” said Carolyn O’Connors, an instructional assistant and librarian at the school. “This is disgraceful. Our parents will not be sending their kids to Tomales Elementary, putting them on a school bus with highschoolers. You would not do that to your child. Unless you have a direct conversation with our community and our school and our staff and our parents, you cannot do this.”

After they saw the Bodega Bay’s closure had been suggested among the budget committee’s possible reductions, 45 community members submitted comments pleading to keep the school open. But with only 26 students, Mr. Stubbs said the district could not justify paying the personnel costs and “utilities, supplies, repairs, travel reimbursements, equipment leases” and other costs when the students “can be as well served, and even better served at Tomales Elementary School where many more resources will be available to support them.” (Bodega Bay School was recently renovated with funds from a $9.29 million bond measure district voters approved in 2009.)

Since $4 out of every $5 of the district’s expenditures go to personnel costs, the administrative team also recommended permanently reducing staffing levels. With 51 certificated teachers and 45 support staff as of June, cuts of 12 employees would reduce staffing by about 12.5 percent. The district’s teacher-to-student ratio is already low and even after cuts “will still be among the lowest in Marin,” Mr. Stubbs said. According to the most recent data available from 2012-13, Shoreline had one teacher for every 10.7 students, just above Bolinas-Stinson Union’s 7.9 students but below Lagunitas Elementary’s 16.2 students. Marin’s average was one teacher for every 15.3 students.

Multiple school employees and parents wondered why the board’s health benefits, which cost somewhere between $44,700 and $54,800, had been included in a special category of items that “should not be considered for reduction” when 15 of the budget committee’s approximately two dozen members said they should be considered in the first round of cuts and another 10 suggested considering eliminating the benefits only if necessary. (Nine committee members, on the other hand, said summer school should not be considered for cuts.) When asked at the board meeting, Mr. Stubbs said everything was on the table.

“We can’t spend too much time wondering why this wasn’t fixed in the past. I don’t know why,” Mr. Stubbs said. “I do know this is where we are right now. It’s kind of our day of reckoning in the Shoreline School District.”