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School Budget Approval Tempered with Concerns

By Teresa Rochester

Special Education, teacher salaries and one-time grants from the City were some of the concerns the Los Angeles County Office of Education had about the school district's record-setting $134.7 million budget for next school year. The County office ultimately approved the document last week.

In a letter to Board of Education President Todd Hess dated Aug. 10, Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) Superintendent Donald Ingwerson wrote that while the district's budget was approved the county had several concerns.

In his letter, Ingwerson advised the district to exercise caution in several areas, including projecting average daily attendance, relying on one-time grants from the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu, calculating the cost of special education and negotiating teacher salaries.

District Superintendent Neil Schmidt said there is nothing out of the ordinary about receiving such a letter from the County.

"All districts get the letter every year," said Schmidt. "It's a very normal letter."

Specifically, the letter addresses the following concerns:

·Special Education: The letter states that the district's general fund contribution to special education next year has increased by 34 percent and recommends that district officials provide a detailed update of the projected general fund contributions to special education for the next three years.

"Discussions with District staff indicate that compliance with Special Education's program requirements is driving an expansion of the District's service population," the letter states. "The resulting increase in costs is a serious and growing issue for many school districts and a crucial factor in their fiscal solvency. Therefore, the district must work to find new ways of managing the special education program and controlling its encroachment on the unrestricted general fund."

· One-time Revenue Source: In his letter Ingwerson expressed concerns that the school district is relying too heavily on cash infusions from the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu. Both cities helped bail the district out of its budget shortfall earlier this year. One recommendation made by the county calls for the district to submit its plans for dealing with the loss of $3.25 million in one-time funding from the cities. The county does not offer any further recommendations on the subject.

·Average Daily Attendance: The district is basing the 2000-2001 budget on an additional 246 permit students and 109 resident students over last year's enrollment. Citing the district's shortfall last year based on enrollment projections that never materialized, the county cautioned the district "to plan for the possibility of a shortfall in ADA and revenue should the projected increase in ADA not materialize in 2000-2001."

·Teacher Salaries: The letter points out that salary negotiations for 2000-2001 have not yet been settled and that the budget does not factor in the salary increases. The letter reminds the district that it must maintain a three percent reserve.

Earlier this year at the invitation of district officials, the County Office of Education was called in to scrutinize the district's budgeting practices. In a report delivered in April the County office found that the district was able to meet its financial obligations. The report's concerns matched those discussed in the letter, which also have been discussed by the board.

"This is just a follow-up," Schmidt said. "I was pleased that they identified the same things we've identified."

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