PALMDALE – Palmdale School District officials grossly misstated the district’s financial status and used an artificial multimillion dollar deficit to force salary cuts, furlough days, and benefits caps on its teachers and classified employees, according to claims made by Nancy Smith, a former district superintendent now running for Palmdale School Board in the Nov. 5 election.
“They told the teachers they were over $15 million in deficit in February, and then by September they were 15 and a half million to the good… it was a $31 million turnaround and that should never have happened,” Smith said.
Smith made the claims as featured speaker at a standing room only community forum at the Palmdale Hotel Wednesday evening. Hosted by the Palmdale Elementary Teachers Association and California School Employees Association Local Chapter 296, the forum was billed as a budget review to “debunk current school district financial claims and demonstrate recent cuts unilaterally imposed on staff are unjust and unnecessary,” according to a joint press release by PETA and CSEA.
During her 20-minute presentation, Smith sourced several of the District’s own documents as proof that the District had dramatically overestimated expenditures while underestimating revenue to bolster claims of insufficiency. (View video of Smith’s presentation above [recorded by Palmdale teacher Calvin Robinson]. View specific talking points of Smith’s budget presentation here, and supporting documentation at the PETA website here.)
According to Smith’s presentation, during the past fiscal year alone, District officials overestimated the budget by millions of dollars in several areas, including certificated and classified salaries, fringe benefits, and books and supplies. This ultimately resulted in a false estimated deficit that fluctuated from $13 million in January, up to $15 million in February, and then down to $7.7 million in March, Smith claimed.
Operating under such a scenario, the District imposed salary cuts, furlough days and a cap in benefits for teachers and classified employees. However, by September, the District’s Final Unaudited Actuals were a positive $15,513,061, Smith claimed.
“There’s no reasonable explanation for what happened,” Smith said. As she detailed the numbers, several audible gasps could be heard from the audience. After the meeting, many teachers expressed shock and outrage.
“People go to jail for stealing from Walmart, surely for stealing from the kids and the teachers in the school district somebody has to be held responsible,” said Mesquite Elementary teacher Annette Harris.
“You can’t comb through your own budget, but you can deny me some 99-cent finger grips to protect my fingers? That is shameful!” said Barrel Springs Elementary teacher Romona Harvey, adding that she would like to see health benefits restored for teachers.
Most troubling was the fact that the classified union’s bargaining team had been trying to tell the District that the money was there all along, said Astrid Cante, a bilingual administrator for early childhood education.
“They went into the District saying that they knew there was money there, but the District kept showing numbers that there wasn’t any money there,” Cante said, adding that she and nearly 500 classified employees were threatened with layoffs in May. “We thought ‘it’s better to get cut than to get laid off,’ so they forced our members to accept a tentative agreement that was not necessary.”
PETA president Hugo Estrada said that teachers would like to see more transparency from the school board going forward.
“We’d like to see a board that actually questions the numbers, and that bargains with us fairly,” Estrada said. “We’re trying not to put blame, what we’re trying to do is get answers. Where is this money? Why is this the approach you’re using? Why can’t we bargain fairly?”
Palmdale School District Interim Superintendent Pauline Winbush attended the forum Wednesday evening, but said she could not comment on the numbers just yet.
“This is all new information that they’re presenting, so I don’t want to respond until I’ve had an opportunity to really look at the information,” Winbush said.
In a press release issued earlier that day, Winbush announced the District would be restoring 11.2% of the salary reductions for the 2014-2015 school year.
“We are able to make the restoration by utilizing a combination of the unrestricted ending fund balance (including the 1% “board reserve” as noted on the Unaudited Actuals), Excess Costs reimbursements received from neighboring districts in 2013 – 2014 and the sale of Pueblo Learning Center… We will continue to monitor “new, unrestricted” money that the district receives and apply it to the contingency language until we are able to restore the final 1% salary reduction and 9 furlough days for the 2014-2015 school year,” Winbush stated in the press release.
Palmdale School Board President Sandy Corrales also said she planned to respond to the budget claims. We will update this story with her response as soon as it is available.
UPDATED at 5 p.m., Oct. 24: Palmdale School District officials have responded to the allegations. Read the entire response at: PSD responds to allegations of budget mismanagement
View a point-by-point response from the school district on all of Smith’s allegations here.
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