RIVERBANK — Riverbank Unified School District adopted a nearly balanced 2013-14 budget Saturday, marking a break in deep deficit spending since the recession started.
"What put us there was complacency," board President Egidio "Jeep" Oliveira said. "This year, we acted. But we should have acted four to five years ago."
Riverbank Unified remains one of three school districts in the region still projecting difficult financial times.
Riverbank, with a $24 million budget, and Waterford Unified, with an $18 million budget, were among 84 California districts that reported they would not be able to cover expenses through 2014-15 with required reserves in place.
Denair Unified, with a $10 million budget, was among the eight districts statewide at risk of state intervention to avoid bankruptcy this year. The Stanislaus County Office of Education will cover its cash needs through the end of June.
Denair needs to reach a settlement with its teachers to finalize reduced spending for its 2013-14 budget; otherwise, in August, procedures will begin for a state takeover, said outside fiscal expert Terri Ryland. She said the state process takes about six months, giving the district further time to find solutions.
A year ago, six Stanislaus County districts, including Modesto City Schools, were in financial jeopardy, as were two districts in Tuolumne County and another in Merced County. Statewide, there were a record 188 districts reporting financial problems in 2011-12, compared with 88 in 2013.
More money from state
With the state's budget adoption Saturday, most districts in the Central Valley will see rosier fiscal futures. Historically paid less per child, valley districts will benefit from the state adopting a higher per-child rate for all districts. Low-income children and English learners, found in higher numbers here, will bring in extra dollars.
Those better numbers will rise over time. Next year's figures are not finalized and are not reflected in budgets passed this month.
At the Riverbank meeting Saturday, however, Oliveira expressed little hope that the new funding would be a panacea.
"Districts are always in a fiscal crisis. We were in a crisis when I came on (the board) eight years ago," he said.
Riverbank's financial downturn came as the town lost jobs and the district lost students. Enrollment outside of its dual-language charter school has dropped by a third since its peak in 2000.
Districts count on attendance for the lion's share of their operating funds. As enrollment goes down, teachers and overhead must be pared to keep the balance sheet in balance.
The budget passed Saturday assumes Riverbank's enrollment will continue to drop, though more slowly. It projects the district will spend $270,442 more than its revenues in 2013-14, down from $1.7 million in deficit spending for this year just ending.
But Riverbank's better balance this year will not be enough, it calculates. The budget projects larger deficits ahead, with its reserves falling below required levels in 2016.
Denair Unified also lost enrollment, with its non-charter school daily count falling 28 percent over five years. Yet it had no layoffs before this year, counting on slim attrition to cut expenses.
Waterford Unified attendance is down 14 percent since 2007-08.
"We continue to experience declining enrollment, making it difficult to cover expenses with revenue. Everyone in the district has become accustomed to doing more with less," Waterford Unified Superintendent Don Davis said.
Its end-of-year projection shows the district spending $1.3 million more than it received this year and $1.4 million in 2013-14, ending next fiscal year with a 1 percent reserve. Without significant cuts, the district could run out of reserves about May 2015.
But Davis said he's optimistic.
"As enrollment rebounds and the Local Control Funding Formula brings increased funding, the outlook is bright for restoring a prudent reserve," he said.