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Paso school district discusses grand jury financial crisis report

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The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District is working to address the questions, concerns, and recommendations raised in a recently released SLO County grand jury report that details what led to the district's second financial crisis since 2012. Over the course of two January meetings that clocked in at almost eight hours total, the district's board of trustees discussed the grand jury's findings and possible ways to prevent such crises from occurring in the future—and there's still more discussion to come.

THE IMPACTS Paso Robles community members, students, and teachers attended a board meeting on March 10 to protest millions of dollars' worth of cuts to faculty, staff, and classes in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • THE IMPACTS Paso Robles community members, students, and teachers attended a board meeting on March 10 to protest millions of dollars' worth of cuts to faculty, staff, and classes in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.

In the 28-page report released on Nov. 17, 2020, the jury blames several accounting errors, a lack of oversight, and shortcomings on the part of Paso Unified's former superintendent, the former board of trustees, and the SLO County Office of Education for draining the district's reserve funds between 2015 and 2018. The report lists 24 formal findings and includes 16 recommendations for improved operations that the district is required to respond to in SLO County Superior Court by Feb. 17.

The board of trustees discussed the findings and recommendations at special meetings on Jan. 9 and 12, and there, James Lynett, executive director of the Paso Robles Public Educators union, encouraged the board of trustees to adopt all 16 of the jury's recommendations in an emailed comment. He even added a recommendation of his own. Because the board of trustees can't audit the district's ongoing expenditures, a certain level of trust is needed between senior administrators and the district's other employees.

"Therefore [Paso Robles Public Educators] would add an additional recommendation for the school board to consider," Lynett wrote, "that is that the finalists for any senior district administrative positions, such as chief business officer, chief academic officer, deputy superintendent, and of course superintendent, be publicly available so that community groups and employee groups can adequately vet the candidates. This has not always been the case."

Board members largely agreed with the findings laid out in the grand jury report and are already working to implement many of its recommendations, which are aimed at strengthening the district's checks and balances that failed to catch the accounting and administrative errors stemming from the office of former Superintendent Chris Williams.

Williams was hired in August 2014, according to the grand jury report, shortly after the district had pulled itself out of another financial crisis in 2012. At the time, Paso Unified had managed to put about $3.9 million into its rainy day fund, equating to about 7 percent of its overall budget and above the minimum 3 percent reserve required by the California Department of Education.

By the end of Williams' first term in 2015, the district's reserve was equal to about 10 percent of its overall budget. But by the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, Paso Unified had just $306,172 left in its reserve, equating to less than a percent of its budget.

"Between 2015 and 2019, nearly $6 million in reserve funds were depleted," the report reads. "This was primarily due to administrative and accounting errors, poor fiscal planning, and improper management guidance."

Another meeting to discuss the district's official response to the report is scheduled for Jan. 19 at 4 p.m. Δ

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