As negotiations for salary, improved working conditions and caps on class sizes carry on between the Brentwood Teachers Association (BTA) and the Brentwood Union School District (BUSD), the topic of transparency with regard to the budget has become a point of contention.
In a message released to The Press, the BTA writes, “The slow negotiations and request for community involvement stem from one theme: a lack of transparency in BUSD’s budget.” The communication piece then outlined areas the BTA states suffer from a lack of transparency regarding district income, expenses, budget cuts and uses of Measure B funds.
“BUSD has acknowledged they received $7.3 million dollars in extra, spendable funding over the last three years,” wrote the BTA. “... Cumulatively, $3.6 million of this extra income comes from increased enrollment in BUSD schools, a trend not seen in many other districts. BUSD is growing, the amount BUSD is receiving per student is growing, but we are being told we are falling further behind. This should cause concern regarding BUSD’s budget transparency.”
BUSD Superintendent Dr. Dana Eaton stated the district is committed to transparency.
“Every major budget report and presentation dating back to 2015 has been presented in public and is available for anyone to review on our district website,” he said. “Our budget is regularly reviewed by the County Office of Education, as well as an outside independent financial auditor who annually reports directly to the school board. These reviews are available to any member of the public and consistently show that our accounting practices and financial projections are accurate and realistic.”
Eaton provided the auditor’s reports dating back to 2013, which can be viewed at bit.ly/2HCvwjN, and he further described the budget increases over the past four years.
“We saw an increase of $11.5 million in unrestricted dollars from July 2015 to June 2019,” Eaton said. “During the same time period, mandated expenses in just three areas — the California Public Retirement System (PERS) and State Teachers Retirement System (STRS), special education required costs and step-and-column increases for employees — increased greater than the revenue received. In addition, employee raises, increases to health benefits, increases to insurance and increased energy costs have greatly impacted our ongoing expenditures. There was no ‘extra’ money. Any additional money allowed us to cut less, rather than spend more.”
Officials from the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE), which oversees the BUSD, weighed in.
“The Contra Costa County Office of Education, in accordance with state law, is required to review the district’s budget, interim and year-end financial reports,” said Bill Clark, CCCOE deputy superintendent. “The district’s financial reports meet all the criteria and standards set forth by state disclosure requirements and generally accepted accounting principles. During the last three years, the district’s general fund ending reserve decreased from approximately $13.5 to $9.9 million, because operating costs exceeded revenues by $3.5 million. Districts across Contra Costa County and throughout the state are experiencing declining fund balances, because operating costs have increased faster than new revenues.”
Teacher representatives at the negotiating table, however, say the district’s cited increase of expenses should already be factored into the budget.
“We are aware that special education is a growing expense across all districts. An expense recognized this year by Gov. Newsom as he proposes a 15% increase in base funding for special education,” the BTA stated. “ ... (The STRS) expense is not a surprise. While there is no direct additional funding, BUSD receives an increase in (cost-of-living adjustment) per student nearly every year. BUSD is currently scheduled to receive $213 more per student next year than for which they budgeted. In addition, these STRS increases are projected to stop rising next year as well.”
Eaton noted the district has made $4.6 million in budget reductions and spent down the reserves by over $2.8 million — less than half the average of a district its size — while those aforementioned special education costs continue to be highly unpredictable.
“Our special education costs alone have increased over $7 million since 2015-2016,” Eaton said. “More than half of the school districts in the state are making budget reductions, because the revenue coming in is not enough to keep up with the growing mandated expenditures. The current governor’s budget proposal provides an additional $1.2 billion in unrestricted dollars for school districts. Of that, $1 billion goes right back to the state to pay for employee pension increases. What is leftover doesn’t begin to cover our other mandated increases.”
Lastly, the BTA addressed concerns around Measure B, calling the district’s claims of how funds can be used “alarming.”
“According to district documentation, Measure B allows for the purchase of many things, including computers and Chromebooks,” BTA stated. “The actual language of Measure B, as well as the public comments by BUSD in the Brentwood Press, affirm this. BUSD received $158 million from the taxpayers for a bond that specifically claimed it would supply these exact learning tools for students.”
But Eaton said a committee of board members, staff and parents convened to provide a list of recommendations after the passage of Measure B.
“The school board approved this list and all of this is available on our district website,” he said. “The school board can choose to alter the expenditures, as long as it fits the ballot language, by eliminating or pairing down another project. We regularly make presentations and send out newsletters about the success of Measure B. Measure B expenditures are overseen by a citizens’ oversight committee, as well as annually audited by an independent auditor.”
With regard to the requests of the BTA to reduce sizes and working conditions alongside the salary increase, Eaton said class size changes and other working condition changes can have significant financial costs.
“The capital to fund raises, health benefits and working condition changes all come from the same pot of money,” he said. “It is important for both sides to consider the financial implications of any language.”
Negotiations are ongoing at this time. The next district board meeting will take place March 11, at 6 p.m. For more information, visit brentwood-ca.schoolloop.com.