In a scathing letter this week, San Diego County Office of Education officials say they believe Sweetwater Union High School District is still misstating its finances by millions of dollars. They also disapproved Sweetwater’s adopted budget from June, meaning Sweetwater will have to revise its spending plan in the coming weeks.
Sweetwater’s budget for the coming year could be understated by as much as $20 million, wrote Michael Simonson, deputy superintendent of finance for the County Office of Education.
Sweetwater’s finances went into a tailspin last September when it became apparent that the district had overspent by more than $30 million the previous year. Some high-ranking officials knew the budget was in danger months earlier, as first revealed by Voice of San Diego. The district’s director of finance tinkered with underlying budget documents to make it look like the district was spending less money than it actually was, according to independent state auditors.
Simonson’s letter indicates similar practices may still be occurring. Critical spending information appears to have been “intentionally left out” of the district’s budget, he wrote. “We have serious concerns that the District’s adopted budget does not accurately reflect the current financial status.”
On Thursday, Sweetwater spokesman Manny Rubio said the district has not had time to formulate a point-by-point response to the County Office of Education’s concerns. Simonson sent the letter to Sweetwater on Wednesday. When asked about the $22 million in understated spending, Rubio said, “Those are numbers we don’t agree with. We’d be happy to address those specifically, but 24 hours we think is unreasonable.”
In order to stay afloat, Sweetwater has been forced to reduce staff, student transportation, teacher planning time and access to technology. A group of parents and students at San Ysidro High School have begun actively protesting cuts at that school.
Throughout the controversy, district officials have stuck to talking points about how they were able to deliver a balanced budget through “collaboration” with stakeholders. But Simonson disputed that the budget is truly balanced.
In June, Sweetwater board trustees passed a budget that contains $10.9 million in unconfirmed savings. The district hopes to save $3.9 million by bargaining furlough days with teachers and $7 million more through further bargaining considerations. But Sweetwater’s unions have not yet agreed to the cuts.
That was part of Simonson’s reason for disapproving the budget. He made district officials aware before June that the county would not support a budget with unconfirmed savings, he said in an interview.
As the County Office of Education has taken an increased oversight role in Sweetwater’s finances, the agencies’ relationship has become more hostile. County Office of Education officials appointed a fiscal adviser to monitor Sweetwater’s financial decision-making last November.
Rubio accused the County Office of Education officials of not acting in good faith. He said he had been led to believe they would not make the letter public as quickly as they did. “It’s starting to feel a little bit like their statements of collaboration are really just that – statements,” Rubio said.
“I am surprised that the district would consider our transparency with the public disingenuous,” Simonson said.
In the letter, Simonson also noted he had yet to see confirmation that an early retirement plan passed by the district last school year will actually lead to the savings Sweetwater officials say it will.
The County Office of Education must approve each school district’s budget within the county. Sweetwater will now have until Oct. 8 to make changes to its budget. The County Office of Education can either approve or disapprove the changes.