The Sonora Union High School district board of trustees said separate district funds designated for technology curriculum expenditures and improvements at the Wildcat Ranch would cover the estimated $200,000 in legal costs from the ongoing lawsuit brought against the district by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau over the sale of the ranch property.
“We need to find other accounts to pull that $200,000 from,” said Superintendent Mark Miller. “If there’s anything we can agree on, we need a positively certified budge three years out.”
When the board voted to cancel the $1 million dollar sale of the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch property to the non-profit Park Foundation on May 14, they said legal costs should come from the General Fund, the main funding source for district expenditures.
Miller said the legal costs and approximately $180,000 in employee raises approved Tuesday during a special meeting of the board, if both paid from the General Fund, would have pushed the district budget into qualified status within the state-mandated three year budget projection, meaning the district would be considered potentially unable to meet its financial obligations.
“We budget on a razor thin margin and we are deficit spending. We will be OK, but there is not a lot of wiggle room here either,” Miller said.
A district falls into qualified status if its reserve fund is not at least four percent of its total budget.
All five of the trustees — President Jim Riggs, Kim Norton, Jeanie Smith, Nancy Scott and Erik Andal — voted to approve the fund transfer.
Miller suggested $150,000 come from Fund 17, which has a total of $700,000 and is designated for technology and/or curriculum expenditures, and $50,000 from Fund 40, which has a total of $400,000 and was intended to be used for improvements at the Wildcat Ranch.
Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza recommended the board approve a percentage split (75 percent from Fund 17 and 25 percent from Fund 40) because the total litigation costs still remained unknown.
She said the final budget for this year would reflect approximately $94,000 in litigation costs which would be reduced from those funds.
Judge Kevin M. Seibert issued a temporary restraining order to block the sale before the scheduled close of escrow on March 30. A $500,000 payment from The Park Foundation, who planned to build a community park on 112 acres and revamp the remaining 25 acres owned by the district, was never made. Seibert issued a temporary injunction on April 12 which blocked the sale pending the conclusion of the Farm Bureau lawsuit because he said the district did not comply with the proper public notice requirements required to sell surplus property.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau is a non-profit, non-governmental local organ of the California Farm Bureau.
When the district board on Dec. 4, 2018 (comprised of two current trustees and the three former trustees at their last meeting) approved the sale, the farm bureau submitted a request to negotiate on the property.
The Farm Bureau has accused the district of violating the Brown Act, which guarantees public participation in government meetings, and not following surplus property sale procedures in their negotiations with the Park Foundation.
A case management conference on the Farm Bureau lawsuit is scheduled for June 18.
The Park Foundation declared in an open letter to the district last week that they believed the decision to cancel the sale was illegal because it violated the purchase and sale agreement signed by both parties.
Miller said he has not had any contact with members of the Park Foundation after the open letter was announced.
The $180,000 in employee raises were $2.25 percent retroactive salary increases to the 2018-19 salary schedule.
They represented approximately $98,000 for certificated employees, approximately $52,000 for classified employees and approximately $30,000 for confidential and management employees.
Miller said he did not receive a raise with the increases.
Vaccarezza said the raises would be paid for out of the general fund, the cafeteria fund and the adult education fund.
According to the new salary schedule, the base pay for certificated employees is $41,135 and the maximum pay is $81,117. Vaccarezza said employees with between 17 and 26 years of employment at the district could also receive additional pay up to approximately $88,000.
According to a presentation by Vaccarezza on the proposed 2019-20 budget, the changes approved by the board on Tuesday would not be accounted for in the budget until the final budget proposal at the next meeting.
The current estimates without accounting for the changes showed a positive fund balance of approximately $988,000 to close the current year with a reserve of 13.6 percent; $392,000 for the 2020-21 school year with a reserve of 9.58 percent and then to negative -$129,000 for the 2021-22 school year with a reserve of 6.22 percent.
She said a positive status was still given the third year out with the negative fund balance because of $1.2 million in a district fund related to economic uncertainty.
The district’s annual budget is approximately 13.7 million.
She said the reserve percentages would go down with the final budget, but the third year out was not expected to go below four percent.
Vaccarezza said the budget reflected an added 2.2 employee positions, comprised for the most part by a special education bus driver (0.8) and a subject credit recovery program teacher (1.0).
The school has 133.9 positions comprised by 50.5 total certificated positions, 48.9 total classified positions, and 14.5 confidential and management positions.
Additionally at the meeting, the board approved cattle grazing at the ranch through August for Sonora High School senior Jake Gookin.
The board also heard from Allan Zimmerly, director of the Historic Dome Preservation Group, who urged the board to expedite the establishment of an advisory committee to review parking and a possible sale of the historic Sonora Dome above Barretta Street.
“I hope you would be able to establish the committee and the committee could work through the summer,” he said, suggesting the board establish the committee at its next scheduled regular meeting on Tuesday.
“I don't like to imagine the additional degradation to this building that was caused by these winter storms,” he said.
Zimmerly cautioned the roof could not be repaired until it was acquired by another group and another group couldn’t acquire it until a solution was found for the limited parking at the site.
Vaccarezza added additional costs should be expected to fix the asphalt roof of the Sonora High School gym, which she said was “disintegrating.”
A metal roof is planned to be installed with costs estimated at about $461,000 from the schools’ deferred maintenance fund. The project would need to be approved by the Division of the State Architect, Miller said.