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New Figures Put Laguna Schools' Deficit at $1 Million

August 21, 1996|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Just two weeks before the new school year, Laguna Beach Unified School District officials learned Tuesday that the recently revealed $800,000 budget deficit has grown by another $200,000, likely meaning deeper program cuts.

Following a meeting with financial consultant Graeme Irish, board members and administrators, who have seen the community deeply divided by the funding crisis, tried to be upbeat about the latest numbers.

"It's a little bit worse, but it could have been a whole lot worse," said Assistant Supt. Robert Klempen. "But we think it's accurate; that's the important thing."

After learning of the earlier $800,000 shortfall, the board had asked Irish to closely examine the district's projected income and expenses before it acts on a final budget, which must be submitted to the county by Sept. 8.

Having already cut $1 million from the tentative budget--even before the $800,000 deficit was disclosed--the board met Tuesday night to consider ways to close the gap. Among the possibilities: larger class sizes, pared-back athletic programs and across-the-board pay cuts.

The latest revelation about the extent of the deficit sets the stage for a showdown between district officials, who say they must now look more closely at possible salary reductions, and teachers, who balk at that option.

"We're not their enemy and we're not their adversary, but we're also not going to roll over and play dead," said Dave Slevcov, president of the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Assn. "We're not going to have the budget balanced on our shoulders."

The district has struggled with budget woes since February, when the board learned of fiscal problems caused by falling property tax revenue, the 1993 fire that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and school facilities and the county's bankruptcy.

Parents, teachers and administrators worked closely to decide which programs to sacrifice, finally cutting $1 million from the tentative budget approved in June. Seven teachers learned they would not return to their classes, and another 60 employees, mostly teachers' aides and clerical workers, also lost their jobs.

The crisis worsened recently when it was learned that bookkeeping errors and unanticipated expenses had created another $800,000 shortfall in the already trimmed down spending plan. That news sent ripples of anger and uncertainty through the community, prompting some parents to demand a leadership change.

In a brisk succession of events, the board on Aug. 12 fired Chief Financial Officer Terry Bustillos. A day later, Supt. Paul M. Possemato tendered an early retirement offer. Nancy Hubbell, the district's special services director, resigned the next day, effective Sept. 3.

The board invited anyone from the district's remaining administrative staff to interview for the interim superintendent post, but no one applied, so they must now look outside to replace Possemato.

Board members have said that their priorities are rebuilding the budget and reopening schools. They have awaited Irish's projections with a combination of anticipation and dread.

Despite the chaos, school officials say they will do what is necessary to make sure schools function smoothly when they reopen Sept. 5.

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