Wilson Says SMUSD Can Compete Despite Financial Challenges

Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
SMUSD Superintendent Jeff Wilson addresses the Rotary Club of San Marino.

Jeff Wilson says he is often asked whether he knew San Marino Unified School District was and would continue to be in the midst of financial woes when he applied to become the district’s superintendent and was hired last year.
“The answer to that is yes, I did know about that,” he told the Rotary Club of San Marino, “but I also saw the potential that we have in front of us for not only fixing our budget but actually expanding our programs and moving ahead.”
In his first “State of the Schools” address to the club, Wilson last week did his best to illustrate the root causes of the district’s fiscal shortcomings, which are primarily tied to a state funding formula that favors districts with academic shortcomings and large populations of “at-risk” students.
Until the 1971 decision by the California Supreme Court in the Serrano v. Priest case, school districts in California were typically funded by local property tax revenues. Depending on the metric used, Wilson said, California typically ranks between 41st and 46th in the U.S. in public school funding. In San Marino, the city is essentially built out in terms of land use, so developer fees that are directed to school districts are at a minimum.
“What you hear is that we are the fifth-largest economy in the world, yet you keep hearing that we’re one of the lowest-funded states in public education, right?” Wilson said. “It’s a conundrum. Certainly we are in the midst of a financial problem here in the San Marino Unified School District.”
The classic political problem of unfunded mandates plays a role in underfunded school districts, Wilson explained. A prominent long-term example is state orders for districts to contribute more to employee pensions to bridge funding shortfalls — an issue also affecting municipal and county governments — but special education requirements also are pinching school districts. Specifically, Wilson explained, greater awareness of and more effective diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders are giving districts more responsibilities, without any additional funding.
“This was not on the radar 10 years ago, and as that has become more prevalent — as far as identifying kids’ needs — the needs of service for those kids have risen,” he explained. “Specifically for kids with autism, we’re finding that the Band-Aid approach to dealing with that in most school districts is to provide those kids one-on-one aides. It is a very expensive proposition.”
On average, California public school districts spend about 85% of their general funds on personnel and benefits, Wilson said; SMUSD checks in at around 88%. The district’s long-standing policy of maintaining lower class sizes factors into that — having extra personnel helps achieve the goal — but it is voter-imposed parcel taxes and donations by the San Marino Schools Foundation that fund the bulk of the additional teachers and staff. With a 20-1 student-teacher ratio, SMUSD boasts smaller class sizes than comparable districts in Arcadia or La Cañada Flintridge, Wilson added.
“There is a cost to maintaining low class sizes, but we do understand the importance of that to this community, so as a result of that, we have very robust fundraising efforts in the town and a great amount of support to help us do that,” he said. “We do rely on our foundation and we do rely on our parcel taxes to provide teachers for our schools.”
Without those additional teachers at each of the schools, Wilson said, class sizes in some cases would far exceed the maximum allowed, but in his experience of lobbying the governor’s office while an administrator at Arcadia Unified School District, state lawmakers expect affluent cities to chip in extra money to their schools. To that effect, Wilson charged the state government with “absolutely abdicating” its responsibility to fund school districts like San Marino’s.
“There’s an expectation,” he said. “There’s knowledge at the state level — with our legislature and the governor — that this model would be unsustainable without local support.
“[Gov. Gavin] Newsom has shown a consistent pattern of directing funds away from districts like San Marino,” Wilson later added. “Our struggle is real. Our struggle is that we have to do more with less and that we have to reach out to our community for help and support.”
Districts statewide are also experiencing one shortcoming in particular with having minimal extra money: facilities maintenance and upgrades.
“I’m not here to campaign,” Wilson said, referencing his legal restriction from advocating either way on a $200 million bond proposition voters will consider in March. “I’m just telling you that every school in the state of California that was built in the good ol’ days is facing this problem right now.
“As far as deferred maintenance goes — again, not here to campaign — we have critical-needs work,” he continued. “There’s only one of three ways in public schools to deal with that: either take the money out of your general fund, which we just saw is eroding; or to pass a bond; or to do a separate campaign or endowment. Those really are the only three mechanisms to deal with our facilities. We also have non-structural building elements that need to be dealt with.”
Wilson said he took on the San Marino superintendent role with several goals in mind, including the growth of a safe, student-centric learning environment and the expansion of cutting-edge programming. In plotting out a game plan, he said, he and district officials are considering the potential needs for the San Marino High School Class of ’32 — this year’s current group of kindergartners.
Wilson said he knows declining enrollment is an issue — the district ideally operates with about 3,200 students, he said; it currently has about 2,900 — and is determined to show that SMUSD can compete with the curricula of private schools. Having worked in both private and public schools, Wilson touted the level of certification required for public educators as an advantage over private competitors.
“I know — having been in both worlds — where the quality lies, and I know that we can absolutely provide a program and service to our kids that is far superior,” he said.
Additionally, Wilson said he plans to use his business experience to tackle looming deficits, which are said to be around $3 million.
“My goal is to get us to a balanced budget — if not by the end of this year — very soon into the next school year,” he told Rotarians.

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