Two East Bay school districts that could be in trouble if they don't quickly bridge their budget gaps are now under the close watch of county-appointed fiscal advisers. Those advisers will have the power to veto expenditures proposed in Hayward Unified, a 22,000-student district in Alameda County, and John Swett Unified, a 1,700-student district in the Contra Costa city of Rodeo.
But the main purpose of the advisers, county officials say, is to help district business officials and school board members keep their districts afloat in the face of ongoing budget reductions from the state and declining enrollment.
"These are not districts that are bankrupt," said Peggy Marshburn, a spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County Office of Education.
In December, school boards from nearly half of the districts in the East Bay reported they might not be able to pay their bills within the next two or three years unless they made additional cuts. The Knightsen Elementary School District in Contra Costa County asked for a fiscal adviser to help make the necessary reductions; this week, Knightsen's board decided to close Old River Elementary, one of its two schools, to save money.
The Hayward school board, which must cut $18 million from its $180 million general fund, worked with county-appointed advisers from 2003 to 2006 after discovering a budget shortfall. In 2006, as the board regained its fiscal freedom, its trustees vowed to keep the district in the black. That was before the state budget crisis began.
"I welcome the adviser but don't know where the heck we're going to cut $18 million," trustee Sarah Gonzales said. "Even reducing teacher work days by 10 days a year would not do it. It's an impossible task that we have before us. I can't sit here with a straight face and say we're not going to put the screws to the kids of Hayward."