First published in the Dec. 25 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank Unified School District looks to be in good shape financially for this fiscal year thanks to one-time COVID relief money but declining enrollment numbers and the rising cost of employee pensions paint a dire picture for the next two years.
Debbie Kukta, BUSD assistant superintendent of administrative services, presented the first interim report that projects finances through 2023-24 to the Board of Education on Dec. 16. She started with the good news: the state’s Legislative Analyst Office projects a surplus which could increase funding for public schools.
The bad news is the fiscal cliff resulting from lower enrollment and average daily attendance, or ADA. Funding from the state is determined by the total days of student attendance divided by the total days of instruction.
Though BUSD staff projects $201 million in expenses this year, coronavirus relief money and grants will help the district end the year with more than $5 million in revenue. Without any additional funding, the district projects less revenue in 2022-23 and an $18.6 million deficit.
Districts throughout California have been held harmless the past few years and have used their ADA figures from 2019-20 in their local control funding formula, but that is set to expire in 2022-23. Kukta said that legislators are working to possibly provide districts a “soft landing,” but Burbank — which made $3.8 million in cuts in 2019-20 and an additional $4.5 million the following year — may have to make $6.2 million in cuts by the end of the 2023-24 fiscal year if the state doesn’t provide additional funding for schools.
“It really decimates our programs, our people,” Kukta told the board. “With salaries and benefits adding up to 83% of the budget, at some point it’s going to affect staffing levels.”
The housing crisis and rising cost of living in California, especially Los Angeles County, are a few factors in the declining enrollment numbers. The district currently has 14,207 students, which is down from 2019-20, when it had 15,120 pupils. One positive takeaway from the enrollment numbers presented by district staff is that there has been an increase in interdistrict permits, allowing students from other areas to attend BUSD schools.
Study sessions with BUSD staff and board members will be held over the next few months to explore options and brainstorm ideas.
“This is not a budget I think where we can afford to just survive,” said Vice President Steve Ferguson. “We need to start making structural changes.”
Kukta agreed, and added that “the sooner some of the strategic decisions are made, then that carries forward so it’s kind of a smooth landing.”