With CBO Gone, Teachers Thinks Montebello Unified Budget Can Improve

April 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Now that the Montebello Unified School Board has fired its controversial chief business officer, employees are hopeful a clearer, more positive picture of district’s finances will soon emerge.

MUSD board members terminated Ruben Rojas last week following months of protests by employees and the public. They blamed Rojas for the district’s dire financial situation that led to 333 MUSD employees being laid off.

With 235 of 333 jobs in jeopardy belonging to teachers, the Montebello Teachers Association (MTA) has the most at stake. MTA and other district unions, and MUSD officials are now scrambling to find alternatives to job cuts for closing a $17 million budget gap, but they could be running out of time.

MTA President Lorraine Richards told EGP the school district must reduce spending in other areas before it lays off employees. She is especially critical of the millions of dollars spent on consultants, complaining that the expenditures have continued to increase over the years.

She’s not alone; it’s a sentiment repeatedly voiced by students, parents and classified employees.

“When you have a budget showing an increase for consultants of course you’ll see a red line at the bottom,” Richards said.

An MUSD employee discusses the impact cuts will have on students during a special meeting March 30. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

An MUSD employee discusses the impact cuts will have on students during a special meeting March 30. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Department of Education (LACOE) informed Montebello Unified officials the district is at risk of not meeting its financial obligations for the next two school years unless it takes decisive action to turn things around. To the dismay of the public, MUSD officials ultimately chose staffing cuts as the vehicle to financial solvency.

Under the latest fiscal stabilization plan, MUSD plans to shore up its finances by eliminating positions, implementing furlough days, freezing pay raises and not replacing retirees.

The biggest hit will be to teaching positions, with an estimated $12 million in layoffs.

Administrative positions will be trimmed by $2.9 million; an additional $1.9 million in revenues will be saved through cuts to non-classroom employees.

According to Richards, MTA has been studying the budget and their research has led them to other areas where revenue can be saved. In some cases, she argues, much of what is budgeted for is in fact not spent.

For example, according to the latest budget summary, the cost for books and supplies has decreased by $6 million since the first interim report, based on an analysis of expenditure patterns, was released. That excess funding, however, will be used for capital expenditures associated with the district’s technology initiative.

Richards hopes the district will consider offsetting general fund expenses with incoming bond revenue, to avoid personnel cuts.

She proposes dipping into the school district’s rainy day reserve fund as another possible way to close the budget gap.

Under state law, however, school districts are required to set aside at least 3 percent of yearly revenue in a reserve fund, and according to LACOE, it’s an obligation the district is already in danger of not meeting.

Richards and others don’t believe MUSD’s finances are as dire as reported by the now fired Rojas.

“A budget can be created to show what you want to show,” she says, skeptical of the financial crisis being painted.

If the situation is as bad as they say, she wants to know why district officials pushed last year for voters to approve a $300 million spending bond. Rojas cited a “sparkling [outside financial credit] report” to move the bond forward, she recalls.

Lloyd Garrison, president of CSEA Chapter 500, the union that represents non-classified employees like plumbers, office clerks and maintenance workers, echoes those sentiment, telling EGP the picture of a tenuous budget was not the one presented last year.

“If we were in such dire trouble why wasn’t that brought up during union negotiations,” he questions. “Why would the board approve raises?”

Last year, after drawn out negotiations, the district agreed to award teachers a two-year pay raise and a one-time bonus. At that time, CSEA members agreed to a one-time bonus.

Richards told EGP she believes the budget crisis was not brought up then because it did not exist.

With Rojas gone and a state audit on the way, but could take 6 months or longer to complete, Richards and Garrison said they expect a more accurate accounting of district finances is forthcoming: not one “covered with Ruben Rojas’ finger prints on it.”

In the meantime, the district’s Fiscal Stabilization Ad Hoc Committee, made up of Board Members Hector Chacon and Edgar Cisneros, representative of MTA, CSEA, the Association of Montebello School Administrators (AMSA), Interim Superintendent Dr. Anthony Martinez and Director of Administrative Services Dr. Angel Gallardo, are working on identifying other areas where money can be saved or reallocated.

MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy said in a written statement that the committee is focusing on “minimizing the number of teachers and support staff impacted by the recent reduction in force.”

 

 

 

MTA Espera Mejor Presupuesto de MUSD, Con Despido de Oficial

April 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Después del despido del controvertido jefe de negocios de la Junta Escolar Unificada de Montebello, los empleados esperan que más transparencia emerja pronto en las finanzas del distrito.

Los miembros del directorio de MUSD despidieron a Rubén Rojas, la semana pasada, después de meses de protestas por empleados y el público, culpándolo por la situación financiera extrema del distrito que causó el despido de 333 empleados de MUSD.

Con 235 de los 333 puestos de trabajo en peligro, pertenecientes a maestros, la Asociación de Maestros de Montebello (MTA) tiene más bajo su vista. MTA y otros sindicatos del distrito, y los funcionarios de MUSD ahora están luchando para encontrar alternativas a los recortes de empleo para cerrar una brecha presupuestaria de $17 millones, pero podrían estar quedándose sin tiempo.

La presidenta de MTA, Lorraine Richards, le dijo a EGP que el distrito escolar debe reducir el gasto en otras áreas antes de despedir a los empleados.

Ella, especialmente criticó los millones de dólares gastados en consultores, quejándose de que los gastos han seguido aumentando a lo largo de los años. Ella no está sola; esto es un sentimiento repetidamente expresado por estudiantes, padres y empleados clasificados.

“Cuando tienes un presupuesto mostrando un aumento para los consultores, por supuesto, verás una línea roja subrayándolo”, dijo Richards.

A principios de este año, el Departamento de Educación del Condado de Los Ángeles (LACOE) le informó a los funcionarios de Montebello Unified que el distrito está en riesgo de no cumplir con sus obligaciones financieras durante los próximos dos años escolares, a menos de que tome medidas decisivas. Para desgracia del público, los funcionarios de MUSD escogieron en última instancia los recortes de personal como el vehículo principal para resolver el problema.

Bajo el último plan de estabilización fiscal, MUSD planea arreglar sus finanzas eliminando puestos, implementando días de permiso sin paga, congelando los aumentos salariales y no reemplazando a los jubilados.

Los puestos de enseñanza serán los mayormente afectados, con unos estimado $12 millones en despidos.

Los puestos administrativos acumularán $2.9 millones en recortes; $1.9 millones en ingresos se ahorrarán a través de los recortes a los empleados no clasificados.

Según Richards, MTA ha estado estudiando el presupuesto y su investigación los ha dirigido a otras áreas en dónde los ingresos pueden ser ahorrados. En algunos casos, ella sostiene, gran parte de lo presupuestado ni se gasta.

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Estudiantes y miembros de la comunidad de Montebello protestaron la semana pasada los despidos en MUSD. Foto de EGP por Nancy Martínez.

Por ejemplo, según el último resumen del presupuesto, el costo de libros y suministros ha disminuido por $6 millones desde que se publicó el primer informe provisional, basado en un análisis de los patrones de gastos. Sin embargo, ese exceso de financiamiento se usará para cubrir los gastos de capital asociados con la iniciativa de tecnología del distrito.

Richards espera que el distrito considere la posibilidad de compensar los gastos generales del fondo que se pueden pagar con los ingresos de bonos entrantes, para evitar más recortes de personal.

Ella propone usar el fondo de reserva de emergencia del distrito escolar como otra manera posible de llenar la brecha presupuestaria.

Bajo la ley estatal, sin embargo, los distritos escolares deben reservar al menos el tres por ciento de los ingresos anuales en un fondo de reserva, y según LACOE, esto es una obligación que el distrito está a punto de no cumplir.

Richards y otros no creen que las finanzas de MUSD sean tan nefastas como fueron reportadas por Rojas.

“Un presupuesto puede crearse para mostrar lo que quieres”, dijo, escéptica de la crisis financiera que está siendo demostrada.

Si la situación es tan mala como dicen, ella quiere saber por qué los funcionarios del distrito presionaron el año pasado para que los votantes aprobarán un bono por gastos de $300 millones. Rojas citó un “brillante informe[de crédito financiero externo]” para mover el bono hacia adelante, recordó.

Lloyd Garrison, presidente del Capítulo 500 de la CSEA, el sindicato que representa a los empleados no clasificados (plomeros, secretarias/os, trabajadores de mantenimiento, etc.) repitió el sentimiento, diciéndole a EGP que la imagen de un presupuesto débil no fue presentada el año pasado.

“Si estuviéramos en tantos apuros, ¿por qué no se planteó eso durante las negociaciones sindicales?”, pregunta. “¿Por qué aprobaría el consejo los incrementos salariales?”

El año pasado, después de prolongadas negociaciones, el distrito acordó otorgarle a los maestros un aumento de sueldo de dos años y un bono único. En ese momento, los miembros de CSEA acordaron una bonificación única.

Richards le dijo a EGP que cree que la crisis presupuestaria no se planteó entonces porque no existía.

Con Rojas desaparecido y una auditoría estatal en camino, que podría tardar seis meses o más en completarse, Richards y Garrison dijeron que esperan una contabilidad más precisa de las finanzas del distrito: no una “cubierta con las huellas dactilares de Rubén Rojas”.

Entre tanto, la Comisión Ad Hoc de Estabilización Fiscal del Distrito, formado por los miembros de la Junta, Héctor Chacón y Edgar Cisneros, representante de MTA, la CSEA, la Asociación de Administradores de las Escuelas de Montebello (AMSA), el Superintendente Interino, Dr. Anthony Martínez y el Director de Servicios Administrativos, Dr. Ángel Gallardo, están trabajando para identificar otras áreas donde se pueda ahorrar o reasignar el dinero.

La presidenta del Consejo de MUSD, Lani Cupchoy, dijo en una declaración escrita que el comité se está enfocando en “minimizar el número de maestros y el personal de apoyo impactado por la reciente reducción en la fuerza”.

Para leer más sobre el despido del CBO, Rubén Rojas, visite www.EGPNews.com

Montebello Unified Fires Chief Business Exec

March 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It had been a while since cheers of praise were heard during a Montebello Unified School District board meeting, but on Thursday, teachers, parents and students were on their feet celebrating  news that a controversial top administrator had been fired.

Getting the axe is Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas who at one point was on administrative leave over questions regarding the truthfulness of information in his resume and job application, which have since proven to be full of false statements and made-up references.

The firing comes months after unions representing MUSD employees and the public began calling for an investigation into Rojas’ hiring.

Rojas’ detractors also blamed him for MUSD’s tenuous budget situation, saying he had presented a false rosy picture of the school District’s financial outlook, and alleged he had improperly awarded District contracts.

Board members had come under fire for their failure to act swiftly and openly on the matter. They were criticized for not fully vetting Rojas before he was hired.

Board members Hector Chacon and Edgar Cisneros presented the motion to terminate Rojas during a closed session meeting Thursday: the vote was 5-0 to approve.

“The composition and direction of the Board member has been continuously evolving over the past year and with that evolution, comes a set of new priorities,” said Board Member Ben Cardenas in a statement explaining the Board’s decision.

“Given the vision of the board and challenges facing our district, it’s evident that we need to go in a different direction with respect to our business office…”

The news was announced during the special board meeting later that evening, prompting loud applause from a stunned, but pleasantly surprised audience.

“You have finally listened to us,” Lu Cruz told the board during public comment. “You have finally seen reason, thank you.”

While many MUSD employees and parents called the firing of the Rojas a “good first step,” others felt it’s too little, too late.

Over the last two months, chants of “no mas Rojas” (no more Rojas) could be heard during protests outside district headquarters, where teachers, staff, students and others loudly expressed anger over the board’s failure to fire Rojas while hundreds of employees were losing their jobs due to MUSD’s deep budget hole.

It was less than a year ago that the public seemed to have little reason not to trust Rojas, who at the time pushed for approval of Measure GS, a $300 million bond for infrastructure improvements. Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond in June 2016, but by September 2016, the feelings of goodwill were gone and Rojas was put on paid administrative leave over a personnel issue related to discrepancies in his resume, only to be reinstated one month later.

 

 

Former MUSD Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas presents a budget update to the board during a meeting earlier this year. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Former MUSD Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas presents a budget update to the board during a meeting earlier this year. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The California School Employees Association (CSEA) Montebello Chapter 505 passed a “vote of no confidence” in Rojas the following month, accusing him of hiring acquaintances, lowering morale district-wide and pushing costly contracts.

The lack of action by the board to fire Rojas and impending layoffs prompted a recall effort against Cardenas and Board President Lani Cupchoy.

Ultimately, 333 MUSD employees received layoff notices as part of the district’s plan to address a $17 million budget deficit. Two-thirds of those cuts were to teachers.

“If the pink slips are rescinded there will be a sigh of relief, but some of the damage will not be undone,” said Shaun Kury, band director at Montebello High School. He is among those who have has received a layoff notice.

The board voted Thursday to give MUSD Superintendent Dr. Anthony Martinez the authority to rescind layoff notices as the budget allows, signaling their willingness to reconsider some of the job cuts in their budget stabilizing plan.

“If we don’t start rescinding [soon], another district is going to steal our talent,” said Chacon, emphasizing the need for urgency.

CSEA Lloyd Garrison told EGP he was very happy with the board’s recent decisions.

“The board wants to move forward,” he said. “By Ruben leaving the district [MUSD] will have a new beginning.”

 

MUSD Workers Get One Month Reprieve

January 26, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Custodians, bus drivers, secretaries and cafeteria workers in the Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) successfully persuaded school board members to temporarily delay action on proposed job cuts and to try to find another away around the district’s looming budget crisis.

“We are the ones at schools before the class lights come on and the ones there way after the lights go off,” Marisol Rivera, a school secretary and regional representative with the California School Employees Association (CSEA) Chapter 505, told EGP during a raucous protest rally before the Jan.19 school board meeting.

Lea este artículo en español: Trabajadores de MUSD Reciben un Mes de Aplazamiento

MUSD is facing a $15 million budget deficit next year and district staff proposed laying-off 319 certificated administrators and classified – or non-teaching – employees to save money.

The proposal comes following notification by the Los Angels County Office of Education (LACOE) that its analysis of MUSD’s finances concluded the school district is in danger of not meeting its financial obligations for the next two school years. They gave the district until Feb. 17 to submit a detailed fiscal stabilization plan or risk the county sending in an overseer.

MUSD must identify $15 million in cuts for the 2017-18 school year and an additional $16.4 million for 2018-19, without touching a penny from its reserve account that has fallen just below the state-mandated 3 percent minimum saving requirement.

News of the potential cuts did not sit well with the approximately 100 employees, parents and some alumni at the protest rally before last week’s board meeting where the layoffs were on the agenda.

“I’m here to put a face to a name on that list,” 54-year-old attendance and pupil data coordinator, Rene Infusino, told board members.

Marisol Rivera rallies hundreds of Montebello Unified School District employees during a rally Jan. 19. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

Marisol Rivera rallies hundreds of Montebello Unified School District employees during a rally Jan. 19. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

Infusino’s husband Marcello, 57, has worked for the district for nearly 40 years and is currently the print shop operations coordinator. Ironically, he printed the very agenda that called for eliminating his position.

“You’re wiping out an entire family,” he said, pleading with board members to save his job.

He and his wife both losing their jobs would be a huge hardship, Marcello told EGP, explaining he has a mortgage and student loans to pay and two children in college.

During the 2010-2011 school year, MUSD had $44 million in reserves. The fund has since dwindled to less than $10 million.

“Where did all the money go?” demanded Jerry Perez, a district bus driver.

“Why don’t the higher ups get cuts?” he said, punctuating the view of many at the meeting.

Perez, still wearing his uniform, told EGP he blames the board and Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas for the district’s financial mess.

The worker’s union, CSEA, has passed a “vote of no confidence” in Rojas and accused him of hiring personal acquaintances, lowering district morale and pushing through questionable and expensive labor contracts and falsifying documents on his job application.

“How is it that he’s still employed while our people are getting cut,” said Rivera in disbelief.

Rivera says cutting classified workers will hurt students.

“We are the maintenance workers that make sure the AC works, the bus drivers that get them to school, the clerical [workers] that deal with parents and the health assistants that handle sick children,” she said.

CSEA Labor Relations Representative Simon Rea disputes district claims of having less money due to falling enrollment, saying revenue has actually increased in recent years.

Hundreds of Montebello Unified School District employees protest proposed cuts Jan. 19. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Hundreds of Montebello Unified School District employees protest proposed cuts Jan. 19. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

He suggested MUSD take a closer look at its professional consulting services and other higher paid positions instead of classified staff, who he says are underpaid and overworked, comparing them to the oil that keeps the parts of a car from breaking down.

LACOE Chief Financial Officer Scott Price reminded the board that MUSD has been living beyond its means for years, refusing to make cuts despite warnings from the county about its structural deficit.

“If you keep going in the same direction you are going to reach zero percent [of reserves] by the end of next year,” Price warned.

Board Member Ben Cardenas asked Price if it seemed plausible the district could find a fiscal solution not requiring layoffs.

“I do not see how you can do that without making cuts in personnel,” responded Price.

Longtime Board Member Hector Chacon called the proposed layoffs the “lazy way out.”

“Cuts have always been the last resort, not the first resort,” Chacon said before asking his colleagues to continue the item until the Feb.16 meeting to give the board time to exhaust all other options.

He suggested the district consider borrowing money to avoid layoffs, take a closer look at contracts proposed by Rojas, freeze promotions, ask unions to consider a 2 percent pay cut and even proposed MUSD sell off its district headquarters and move their offices to the Laguna Nueva School site. Others suggested furlough days.

While many in the audience were pleased to hear Chacon say he would not support cuts, they were also frustrated that Chacon, who’s been on the board for decades and is up for reelection, failed to act on past opportunities to prevent the fiscal fallout facing the district today.

“They should have done that years ago,” someone in the audience said.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“He is all talk,” said another.

If the school board ultimately approves layoffs, the district must deliver pink slips to impacted employees by March 15 to comply with the terms of agreements with its bargaining units.

“Is it possible we come up with multiple scenarios? Yes, it is possible will we find these in the prescribed time, that’s open to interpretation,” said Cardenas.

If the district fails to adopt a plan to stabilize its finances, the county is likely to send in a fiscal advisor to ensure steps are taken to shore up MUSD’s budget.

The prospect of county oversight – particularly over spending – appealed to many in the audience who had complained about Rojas.

In response to those complaints, Chacon asked staff to include on the board’s next meeting agenda discussion of whether Rojas should be placed on paid administrative leave while claims against him are investigated.

The district began hosting informational meetings on their fiscal stabilization plan Wednesday and will hold three more meetings over the next two weeks.

An earlier version of this story was published at www.EGPNews.com

MUSD to Undergo Forensic Audit

December 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

After receiving several phone calls from Montebello Unified employees alleging fraud and misuse of school district funds, Board Member Ben Cardenas has called for a full forensic audit of MUSD’s finances.

“There was enough to merit a closer look,” he told EGP, explaining he hopes an audit will clear any doubts about the school district’s financial practices.

“The nature of the allegations was important,” he said,

Cardenas’ initial call for the audit came last week when he still held the title of MUSD board president. While the school board will not officially act on his request until its meeting tonight, according to newly appointed Board President Lani Cupchoy, district staff is already looking into firms with the expertise to conduct the work.

The forensic audit will exam MUSD’s accounting procedures, policies, priorities, spending protocols and lines of authority and seek to uncover any theft of cash or inventory, fraudulent payments, corruption, conflicts of interest, bribery, extortion and misstatements.

Cupchoy told EGP conducting the audit would help reassure the public that the school district is being run properly, which is timely given that voters just approved a $300 million school bond in June.

“We are opening our doors,” she told EPG. “We owe it to the public.”

 New MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy announces the district will undergo a forensic audit, following her appointment during the Dec. 8 meeting.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

New MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy announces the district will undergo a forensic audit, following her appointment during the Dec. 8 meeting. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Cardenas also wants the district to set up a tip line where employees and others can anonymously report fraud without fear of retaliation.

“It seemed many [employees] were afraid of speaking out,” Cardenas told EGP.

News of the proposed audit comes on the heels of the controversial firing of Superintendent Susana Contreras-Smith and Chief Financial and Operations Officer Cleve Pell, a longtime MUSD administrator who has served in various upper-management positions, including co-superintendent.

The firing prompted someone to create musdcorruption.com, a website critical of the district that claims the two former administrators were actually fired because they tried to take a stand against corruption. The site also alleges MUSD’s attorney was replaced to hide the cover-up.

Earlier this year, the California School Employees Association (CSEA) Montebello Chapter 505 passed a “vote of no confidence” targeting the MUSD Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas, who earlier this year was briefly placed on paid administrative leave for what was only described as a personnel issue.

CEA’s no confidence vote accuses Rojas of hiring personal acquaintances, lowering morale district-wide and not adhering to project labor agreements among other issues.

Residents and employees have also expressed disapproval of some contract bids approved by Rojas.

On Wednesday, however, MUSD released a statement announced that it has received a AAA rating from the Fitch Ratings Agency for the $100 million voter-approved school bond to be issued by the district. It’s the “highest possible credit rating any bond issue can receive, including those of the U.S. Federal Government and would save local taxpayers millions of dollar,” according to the announcement.

Rojas said the credit rating “is a testament to the strong fiscal management’ of the district. “We will continue to make smart fiscal decisions that will allow our schools to thrive,” Rojas said.

Cardenas would not divulge details of the allegations, claiming he does not want to prejudice the audit process or enter the realm of speculation. Regardless of the outcome, he said he believes the audit will help the board and public achieve a better understanding of the district’s budget, providing a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to make sure the district is operating efficiently.

“This is the best investment we can make,” he assured.

After hearing rumors of wrongdoing, Linda Nicklas, co-founder of the Montebello watchdog group MATCH90640, told EGP she’s looks forward to the audit.

“We need a independent audit, with absolutely no ties to anyone on the board,” she said.

Cupchoy told EGP she does not believe the audit paints the district in a negative light.

“It’s not something negative or wrong,” she said. “I see it as a safety net.”

Cupchoy told EGP that the district’s number one priority is making sure all money is used to serve its 29,000 students. A fiscal audit will provide guidance and ensure there is equity across the district, she said.

“The audit is not about the finances,” she told EGP. “It’s about investing back in our district.”

 

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