Salida Union scrambling after $760,000 error found

SALIDA -- A $760,000 miscalculation could lead to a deeper round of budget cuts for the 2010-11 school year.

Officials at the 2,900-student Salida Union School District recently stumbled across a budget gap of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

The error presents a daunting task for district officials, who estimated the need to trim $1.3 million from next year's budget before the additional shortfall.

"It's the equivalent of teachers not using curriculum every day," said Tom Wright, co-president of the district's teachers union. "We're a small district -- it's a huge mistake."

The mistake represents about 3 percent of the district's $26 million annual operating budget. An employee in the district's business office has been placed on leave, but Superintendent Doug Baughn wouldn't say who.

Baughn also didn't want to go into detail about how officials discovered the glitch, but said it was within the past two weeks.

Officials and a consultant will spend December combing over the budget to get a better handle on exactly how far the budget is out of whack. They'll then start addressing the gap, most likely through spending freezes and trims to the 2010-11 budget.

Though students and employees probably won't see much impact this school year, next year could look drastically different. It'll be the third year in a row California districts have to make deep cuts to spending, and 2010-11 is projected to be the worst of the three.

In addition, the millions in federal stimulus money districts received this year to save jobs won't be available for 2010-11.

"Last June, they thought they'd have to cut $1.3 million (for the 2009-10 school year)," Wright said. "That translated into about 17 teachers. ... I'm afraid (the calculation error) means we'll be laying off teachers next year."

Employees are "very upset, very frustrated," he said.

Baughn said he thinks the shortfall occurred when officials failed to trim revenue projections proportionately with the state's decrease in per-student funding -- about $250 per student.

For help, Baughn and staff went to the Stanislaus County Office of Education. Leaders there decided to contract with a consultant, who will take the month of December to redo Salida Union's budget, said Don Gatti, county assistant superintendent of business services.

Such errors are becoming more common, he said, as the state budget gets more complicated.

"They basically asked for a second set of eyes," Gatti said.

After the review is done, Salida Union will hold a special board meeting in January to update trustees on the findings and options.

Salida Union is not new to budget woes. The Salida Teachers Association took an informal vote of no confidence against the business department several years ago, Wright said. The department oversees budgeting, payroll, purchasing and other fiscal responsibilities.

And last spring, officials took out a $4.5 million short-term loan through the county treasury to help cover monthly bills when the state delayed payments to districts.

"That was a separate cash flow issue," Baughn said Monday.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive.