By Diana Lambert, Sacramento Bee | http://bit.ly/IvVvEG
Monday, Apr. 9, 2012 - 7:58 am :: Hundreds of school administrators and finance officers will crowd into conference rooms around the state in May to hear School Services of California staff explain what the state budget revisions mean to their school districts.
When School Services President Ron Bennett and his cadre of experts speak, educators listen. Nearly every state school district is a client. The employee-owned company offers everything from lobbying and consulting services to executive searches.
<< Ron Bennett of Schools Services of California works with educators on budgeting, contract negotiations and other services. - PAUL KITAGAKI JR.
Bennett, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, accountant and school superintendent, talked with The Bee about his company and the future of public education in the state.
Who are your clients?
What services do you offer clients?
Districts can access our website to view articles and fiscal reports. Clients also get a discount on most workshops. The fee includes eight hours of consulting annually.
We travel a lot. Our top people are on the road three to four days a week working at school districts. We spend a lot of our time on collective bargaining and budget services.
Five years ago we focused on how to take kids to the next level – the best use of dollars for programs.
Given how unpredictable school funding is, what advice do you give districts?
The tax measure is problematic because, if passed, school districts don't get more money. If it fails, however, they get a big cut. I tell them to plan for cuts. If the measure fails: $455 per student.
I have a solution. The feds owe us $3 billion for IDEA (special education) this year. If they pay us $1.2 billion we could pay the salaries of 22,000 teachers. I told legislators: "We don't need more federal programs, we need for you to pay that bill."
Explain deferrals and their effect on school districts.
The state has been deferring payments to school districts since 2001. It is a cut to appropriations in the current year with a promise to pay next year. The first one was $1 billion for a week.
School districts now get 44 percent of their money in the second year. This is a big issue this year.
If the tax measure passes, $4.8 billion will go to reverse the deferrals. Districts will get cash on time, but no additional money.
Are more school districts moving into a negative financial status?
This year 374 of 1,000 were less than positive; normally there are less than 30. School boards are making a heroic effort to keep students on track despite the cuts.
Tell me about your company's experiences negotiating union contracts.
Sometimes we visit for an hour and settle a contract. Even if they don't trust each other, over a number of years, they trust us.
The real barriers to negotiations are built around economics, and I try to break down the barriers. Sometimes the unions say the district doesn't need cuts at all. I explain multiyear projections (the requirement that districts balance their budgets over three years). At San Juan (Unified) I pointed out that employees hadn't had a raise in five years, although the cost of their benefits continue to go up. I try to develop a sensitivity on both sides.
Education in California is at a crossroads. … When my grandparents brought the clan from the Midwest, it had the best education system in the world. Employers came here to take advantage of that. We're losing our edge.
Economically our best days are in front of us. Educationally our best days are in front of us. This is a time of challenge and a time of opportunity.