That old familiar feeling

This week’s announcement about Chico Unified School District money woes had a very familiar ring—and not because we read about it in our own paper.

Yes, for a story in our Back to School Issue (Aug. 16), interim Superintendent Kelly Staley told intrepid intern Toni Scott that CUSD had to slice $1.12 million off a budget already cut by $1.67 million. (That additional reduction has since been revised to $400,000.)

What echoed most loudly was how the district has been tapping into reserves to cover spending that’s outpaced income. Sounds just like Chico city government, which has tapped into specific funds—such as gas-tax revenues—to keep the operation going. To balance the budget over the next 10 years, councilmembers are grappling with ways to offset deficits totaling $56 million (up to $125 million should they approve staffing increases for public safety).

We think CUSD needs a similar long view. The district has made what it calls “multi-year budget projections” that show reserves will dry up by the end of the 2008-09 school year. That is significant, because the state requires districts this size to maintain a reserve fund of at least 3 percent of their operating budget—$3.2 million in Chico’s case.

Obviously, some radical rethinking is in order. Here’s one idea: Use bond money to make each campus energy self-sufficient, which would free up funds to fortify the budget and reserves.

Nine years ago, Chicoans approved a bond issue to improve facilities and build a third high school. It’s become obvious that this new high school isn’t materializing, so why not ask voters to approve a change in purpose? We have three elections next year, so there’s ample opportunity. Then, taking the example of Little Chico Creek Elementary, install solar panels and other green technologies at each school. Upgrade insulation, roofing and other components as necessary.

Will this balance the budget? Not entirely, of course, but this long-term investment in our schools’ future will help ensure the district’s vitality and—dare we say it—sustainability.