The Mariposa County Unified School District was forced into an interesting dilemma last week.
District officials needed to adopt a 2020-21 budget, as is normally done, but had to do so with a leap of faith and a little bit of guesswork.
The faith required is that help will come from the state and federal level. But with Covid-19 affecting so much of the nation’s economy, including California, getting a picture of what educational funding will look like is murky, as the state has not yet adopted its budget at this time.
“This budget issue is not singular to Mariposa County. Every district in the entire state is going through this process right now,” said MCUSD Superintendent Jeff Aranguena.
Because of the uncertainty, MCUSD has implemented a non-essential hiring freeze. What this means, in basic terms, is that there is a halt on hiring any employee who isn’t necessarily required for a school-related program to survive, at its basic minimum.
“(It means) can a program continue to move forward without that person at this time? That’s the first step,” Aranguena said.
This strategy is one that is being taken to avoid laying employees off, Aranguena explained. Laying employees off is the last resort.
“For us, we felt the best approach to address the potential budgetary issues was to simply go into a hiring freeze as opposed to start layoff processes,” Aranguena said. “We chose the path of instead of looking at layoffs immediately, let’s not hire nonessential, vacant positions as a first step toward addressing potential budget issues.”
Aranguena said that decision is “basically giving us time to let the state get their budget together,” which is ultimately “supposed to be done” by June 30.
“What we know and have been told is that although the governor and state legislature will pass a budget by June 30, we have been told this budget is not reflective of what the true revenue dollars are for the state,” Aranguena said. “Because they have delayed the tax season … we have been told by the state that in August or September, we will have a true picture of what the revenue actually was for the fiscal year. Then when we have the real numbers in August and September, we’ll have a truer picture for what the budget will look like for the 2020-21 year.”
At the mercy of state, feds
One big worry when it comes to funding is potential cuts to after-school programs and adult education programs. It will be determined soon whether those programs are cut in the state and federal budgets. There has been talk of making those cuts.
“We don’t know if there is going to be federal intervention (when it comes to the budget),” Aranguena said. “By the looks of it at this point, without federal intervention, both of those budgets showcase cuts to those programs.”
Aranguena continued, “for us in Mariposa County, obviously we’re at the mercy of the state and federal government when it comes to funding. That is not a secret. I think for us, our team is prepared to do what we need to do and look at our priorities, and make sure we are prioritizing a balanced budget. We’re leaning on and we hope that there is intervention at the federal level and state level to help support minimizing any reductions or adjustments that need to be made. Those are always the most difficult conversations in education.”
Optimism in the face of adversity
As he has done throughout his time as superintendent of schools, Aranguena continues to remain optimistic, despite worries over the budget.
“I feel very confident where we’re at, based on the work we’ve done over the last year or two years. There are other districts that aren’t in as good of a position as we are at a time of a pandemic or budget crisis,” he said. “The leadership team we have, it’s important to understand that because of that team and the school community, we are in a position to weather the storm better than others. That’s not luck. That’s hard work by the board and this team. You have to have a team working together.”
But still… the country is in the middle of a pandemic. Isn’t he at least a little worried about what the future could hold for school funding?
“As far as being worried, I feel for everybody at this time. This has been an unfortunate situation, not just budgetarily, but the health and safety of everyone is on our mind,” Aranguena said. “We rely on facts. We do our best to utilize relevant data. I think we work hard to make it a very inclusive process whenever we’re making decisions. This team couldn’t be coming together and jelling at a better time.”
Aranguena concluded: “We’re appreciative of people’s patience and understanding of how unprecedented this time is. … We’re going to be methodical about our plans and inclusive when it comes to our plans, and get a ton of feedback from all the stakeholders who need to be heard.”
Aranguena doesn’t take pay increase
As reported on page A-4 in this edition of the Gazette, Aranguena had another year added to his contract. The extension of the contract was approved by the school board during last Thursday’s meeting.
However, Aranguena will not be taking a salary increase with the extension. His salary will remain at $160,000.
“What I felt at this time was that with everything going on, it wasn’t proper to bring it up,” Aranguena said.
Normally, an increase of 2.5 percent can be applied to the superintendent’s base salary, if the superintendent receives an overall satisfactory positive performance evaluation from the school board for the prior year. This increase is not automatic in that instance, but is subject to the overall satisfactory positive written evaluation.
“I firmly believe with our current hiring freeze and our budget uncertainties, now is not a time to consider this language (the 2.5 percent merit-based increase) as we have many other pressing issues that we need to be considering. Therefore, this language will not be considered at this time,” Aranguena told the board.