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Tight financial times may be on the way for CUSD schools

At the January 19 meeting of the Claremont school board, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker cautioned that the district may face some tight financial times in the coming months and years.

On January 10, Governor Jerry Brown revealed his proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. He emphasized that the state’s economy, which has been improving steadily in recent years, looks to be taking a downturn. He has responded with a conservative budget, with austerities including rolling back some planned increases in education funding.

The anemic economic picture comes at a time when the Claremont Unified School District finds itself economically vulnerable because of demographics.

Under the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)—which was enacted in the 2013-2014 school year and is nearly fully implemented in CUSD—every public school student in the state gets the same annual base funding. That amount is currently $7,188 per K-3 pupil; $7,295 for each student in fourth through sixth grades; $7,513 for each student in 7th and 8th grades, and $8,705 for every student in high school.

Extra funding comes for students with various challenges: English language learners, foster children, socio-economically disadvantaged pupils or homeless students. The more students a district that fall into one or more of the categories, the more funding it receives.

An unduplicated pupil count tallies up how many students fall into one or more of these “high need” categories. Under the LCAP, each high need student generates 20 percent additional funding beyond the base grant.

Twenty-five percent of California schools have the lowest unduplicated pupil count in the state, less than 40 percent. With an unduplicated pupil count of 38 percent, CUSD falls firmly into that category.

This means Claremont schools don’t qualify for helpful concentration grants, which go to districts with an unduplicated pupil count of more than 55 percent. A district that qualifies for a concentration grant receives additional funding for each high needs student to the tune of 50 percent above the base grant.

In an interview after the board meeting, Ms. Shoemaker noted another factor that bodes poorly for the district’s budget.

CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) is a state agency that manages pension and health benefits for classified employees in California schools. CalSTRS (California State Teachers Retirement System) does the same for teachers.

These agencies contribute a certain amount of money to school districts for staff retirement benfits and the districts absorb the remaining cost. Both agencies will be pulling back on the amount of money they contribute in the coming years.

“Employer contributions are going up astronomically,” Ms. Shoemaker said.

The district’s contribution toward classified employees’ retirement benefits is 13.89, with CalPERS kicking in the remaining money. Next year, the district will have to contribute 15.8 percent and in the 2018-2019 school year that amount will rise to 18.7 percent.

The district is now paying for 12.58 percent of educators’ retirement benefits, with the rest coming from CalSTRS. Next year, however, the district’s portion will rise to 14.43 percent, and in the 2018-2019 school year CUSD will be expected to pay 16.28 percent.

There will be a slight cost of living adjustment in the 2017-2018 budget of 1.48 percent, according to Ms. Shoemaker. She also notes there are people in Washington right now lobbying for more money for California schools. It’s possible that in Governor Brown’s May Revision—a more complete version of the coming fiscal year’s budget—will include more education funding.

“In my 20 years, I’ve seen it sometimes get better and sometimes get worse,” Ms. Shoemaker said of the pending update.

Governor Brown has become known for his dedication to balancing the Golden State’s budget. When he came to office in 2011, California had a whopping $27 billion budget deficit. He has since helped bring that number to $2 billion, but the progress has not come without some pain.

Ms. Shoemaker emphasized that “we’re not in crisis mode yet,” and that  her report to the board was just for information.

“But we have to be cognizant of the potential for crisis. We can’t put our head in sand,” she said. “We have to strike a balance between overreacting and being poised to respond.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com