by David Safier
I attended the TUSD board meeting Tuesday night and scribbled notes as fast as I could. Here are some of the takeaways.
The district is submitting its annual report about its finances for the 2013-14 school year to the state Department of Education and the Auditor General. That means the finalized figures for the last school year ending in July, 2014, are signed, sealed and delivered. They're official numbers, not estimates or predictions, so if TUSD has it wrong, it's going to hear about it from the state. I think it's probable the district doesn't have it wrong.
Here's a summary of the information Chief Financial Officer Karla Soto presented to the board and the audience. Every one agreed it was the most detailed financial presentation in recent memory.
The 2013-14 school year began with about $14 million in cash reserves carried over from the 2012-13 school year, which was Superintendent Pedicone's final year.
This wasn't part of her presentation, but it's worth remembering, that year Pedicone said the district was facing a potential $17 million deficit. As a result, TUSD closed 11 schools and made other deep cuts. And yet, after the 11 schools were closed because the district said it had no other choice, it had $14 million in reserve, significantly more than the total savings from the 11 school closures.
So Superintendent Sanchez began the 2013-14 school with, in essence, a $14 million cash cushion. That's how much was sitting in the reserves before he started spending that year's budget. At the end of that year, in July, 2014, that reserve had grown to $20 million.
This also wasn't part of Soto's presentation, but a very different cash reserve figure has been floating around for the past 3 weeks, which came from leaving Deputy Superintendent Yousef Awwad's spreadsheet predictions of potential financial disaster. Awwad said the end-of-the-year reserves were $10 million, half of what Soto put in the report which is being sent to the state. According to Soto, instead of the reserves being spent down $5 million during Sanchez's first year, they grew $5 million.
Next, Soto presented her budget projections for the 2014-15. We have a long way to go before we reach July, 2015, so these are her best estimates. She said the district will spend $5 million from the $20 million reserve it began with, adding it to the district's budget to make a variety of improvements (I don't know where those funds will be spent). As a result, she projects the district will once again have cash reserves in the $14 million range in July, 2015, just as it had in July, 2013, when Sanchez took over as superintendent.
Those are very good numbers for the district. In our education-funding-starved state, every district could use an extra influx of cash, and that $5 million above and beyond this year's funding can make a significant difference without touching the original $14 million reserve. Interestingly, Soto, who was previously CFO for the Nogales schools, said Nogales didn't keep a cash reserve. That makes TUSD's tradition sound fiscally prudent, though it also makes me wonder why the reserve couldn't have been spent down a bit during the 2012-13 school year to keep some of those 11 schools open.
Here's the big question remaining. How is it possible that the fiscal situation Awwad presented three weeks ago differs so widely from Soto's information? How could Awwad's statement that the district had $10 million cash reserves for 2014 come out to $20 million on the financial numbers Soto is presenting to the state? How could Awwad predict a potential $15 million deficit when Soto says the district will be able to add $5 million to its budget and still end up with a $14 million reserve?
I honestly don't know the answers. But I do know Awwad has taken a position as CFO for the Portland school district. Now, I know some people think Portland is heaven, but I can speak from experience about this: you don't have to die to go there. Awwad is, I imagine, alive and well in the City of Roses (that's what Portlanders call the place), and someone can give him a call or shoot him an email and ask why his doom-and-gloom scenario differs so widely from the numbers Soto presented to the board. I would hope he'd take the time to look at the two sets of numbers and explain the discrepancy. Otherwise, he could be accused of pulling a "data dump and run." I'm sure he has an explanation, which for all I know would may make him look good. It would be valuable for all of us if he weighed in on the subject which has caused so much turmoil and so many headlines here in the Old Pueblo.