By Jon Ray, Principal/Superintendent, Weed Union Elementary School District
Due to delays, the new cafeteria is susceptible to winter conditions. If immediate action is not taken, WES will have to start over.
The Weed Union Elementary School District has been done an egregious disservice by the Siskiyou County Office of Education over the past year. SCOE was quick to declare an emergency financial situation in our district based on a faulty assessment of our financial condition and without providing resources, communication, or support that would have alleviated SCOE’s concerns. SCOE created a manufactured fiscal crisis of their own doing and the educators, families, and students in our schools are paying the price.
The county office has frozen any desperately needed work to rebuild Weed Elementary School, called for outside state entities to audit our books, and wrongly alleged that we may have even been guilty of mismanagement and fraud. These actions are outrageous, uncalled for, and insulting. SCOE completely failed to provide any actual assumptions or facts backing up their declaration of fiscal emergency which has generated unwarranted criticism and burdensome bureaucratic meddling in the financial affairs of our school system. SCOE is publicly shaming our school district for a situation that they created because of their own failures in accurately reviewing our budget.
The start of this fiasco was triggered by SCOE’s chief financial officer Sarah Applegate and retired Superintendent, Kermith Walters, giving our budget a negative certification on March 1, 2022. They claimed that we did not have sufficient funds to meet our financial obligations. Specifically, Mr. Walters wrote, “Based on the County Superintendent’s staff’s analysis of the information submitted, the county superintendent determined that the district will not meet its financial obligations in the current fiscal year. As such, the certification status for the district has been downgraded from qualified to negative.” That is a profoundly serious charge and it set in motion a series of actions to exert control over our budget and our school building project.
However, a $626,762 Areawide Tax Allocation payment was missing from the accounting methodology Ms. Applegate used to determine we were out of balance. Had this revenue been accounted for and proper notifications given by SCOE, the need for direct fiscal oversight and a state audit would have been unnecessary since the negative certification was premised on a low cash balance, which we did not have. We are mystified as to how the county office overlooked this fact since Ms. Applegate was our fiscal officer right before she took on her new role with SCOE last year.
Even though the statute requires the first allocation of tax revenue to be apportioned by December 10th of each year and the second to be posted by April 10th of each year, Weed Union Elementary did not receive any Areawide apportionment until May 17th, 2022. It should be noted that the Siskiyou County Auditor-Controller’s Office did apportion the money to Siskiyou County Office of Education’s account according to the statute; the money sat in SCOE’s account. Ms. Applegate later claimed it was because they did not have enough staff to do the work on time. Yet, despite their own oversight and inefficiency they pressed forward with intervention strategies in WUESD.
It is particularly galling to read in recent local newspaper articles that SCOE is now publicly claiming credit for helping us out of a fiscal mess. The tone of those articles is that we mismanaged our budget and that SCOE had to step in the clean things up. That simply is not true.
It is outrageous that Ms. Applegate has alleged that WUESD has mismanaged funds or even been involved in fraud without supplying a shred of actual evidence or documentation to back up that claim. Innuendo, character assassination, and scare tactics have no place in this oversight process and severely threaten the ongoing working relationship between our two organizations.
The district uncovered mold and structural problems in five out of six of the district's buildings. In Autumn 2021, the district learned the cost to repair the old school buildings would be more than half the school’s value. According to California School Facility Guidelines, if the repairs exceed 50% of the value, it makes more sense to rebuild rather than repair the school; the district would then qualify for new construction funding. The school board opted to spend $32 million to rebuild the impacted campus. In the interim, Weed Elementary School teachers will continue to conduct classes in modular buildings. We requested a loan from SCOE in October 2021
— the same month the district broke ground on the new campus. The county said it did not have the money, so the district kept borrowing from its reserves.
Fast forward to March of this year, and the county finally offered the district a short-term loan (after they declared us broke) to pay bills that they had frozen based on their faulty assumptions. We declined their offer because we have sufficient cash flow, yet they insisted that we accept a line of credit from them to deal with “health and safety concerns” that they did not specify. A subsequent meeting with all parties resulted in agreement that the line of credit and loan were not needed. Again, we were dealing with a manufactured fiscal crisis that could have been averted through a respectful process of open communication by SCOE.
Weed Union Elementary School District is now embroiled in an audit being conducted by the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) and delays by SCOE in getting our contractors and vendors paid on time for the work they are doing to build our school. From the District perspective, SCOE is abusing its discretion over matters related to the financial stability of our District and it is obvious that they have a personal vendetta against the WUESD administration.
In fact, in discussions with the FCMAT oversight team, we have clearly demonstrated that in the past four months we have restored our reserves to 13% and re-hired employees that were threatened with layoffs. It is ironic that the same $626,762 that SCOE failed to reflect in our budget equals about 12% of our overall budget. In other words, SCOE was the reason we had to dip into reserves to continue moving forward with the construction process for our school. It is also ironic that SCOE was the subject of a similar FCMAT audit less than a year ago in which the state watchdog agency said SCOE “is failing” to adequately do their job for the citizens of Siskiyou County. To quote the report:
“In the area of business services, the Siskiyou County Office of Education (SCOE) is failing the districts in the county. Internal operations at SCOE are strained due to the interactions with the business office. Due to a culture of disfunction and intimidation brought on by the business office leadership, even the simplest task becomes a hurdle.”
To find the quoted report, please access using the following URL address: https://www.fcmat.org/PublicationsReports/Siskiyou-COE-final-report-1359.pdf (Page 9, 1st paragraph)
We do not want to be at odds with the county office of education. Instead, we welcome the opportunity to be their partner in serving the educational needs of our incredible community. The District is committed to fully cooperating in this oversight process. We welcome the review and believe firmly that our financial practices and decision-making will be vindicated.
At this stage, a meaningful course of action needs to be charted out of SCOE’s bureaucratic overreach that does not just involve defaulting on existing contracts and does not create a situation whereby construction funding is delayed or jeopardized altogether. We must immediately create an atmosphere of professionalism, mutual respect, and clarity of purpose.
The communities that make up Weed, California, especially our students, deserve better! WUESD is an exceptional, well-run school district and we do not deserve misrepresentations by SCOE to the public that we are not.