April 25, 2008

Perspective:

Southwestern College Successful in Meeting Budget Challenge

By Raj K. Chopra
Superintendent

In my more than 30 years of experience in education, I have weathered many financial crises. Some have been worse than others. The budgetary crisis the state of California – and subsequently its public education system – is facing right now is one of the worst I have ever witnessed. It seems the state’s deficit continues to increase on a seemingly daily basis. When will it end? How are we, as gatekeepers of state funds, supposed to plan for tomorrow? The answer: look to the past, as it tends to repeat itself.

Over the years I have learned that when it comes to a budget crisis you must be creative in identifying cost-saving strategies and do everything in your power to avoid impacting students and issuing layoff notices to employees. Students, after all, are why public education systems exist and it is our primary responsibility to provide them nothing short of excellence. Employees are the element to success in providing that excellence.

Southwestern Community College District, like so many local and statewide school districts, is bracing for significant budget cuts for both the current fiscal year 2007/2008 and next fiscal year 2008/2009. But while other districts are presenting layoff notices in the hundreds in preparation for the worse, Southwestern has not yet issued a single layoff notice due to budget.

How did we do it? We took the harder road less traveled, starting with a reorganization plan that may not have been popular but certainly got the job done. Responsibilities were shifted. Positions eliminated. Vacancies left unfilled. But, ultimately, nobody lost their job or saw a decrease in their pay, and the District saw savings in the hundreds of thousands.

The District also took a hard look at how it managed its finances. With the backing of an exceptionally supportive Board, repeated requests were made early on to budget managers to tighten their belts and, I am pleased to say, they did a magnificent job. Their sound fiscal management, as well as overall competent financial judgment shown by the District, means we will carry over funds from fiscal year 2007/2008 to fiscal year 2008/2009 that will be critical to managing next year’s tight financial situation.

The focus and clear expectations of the Governing Board greatly contributed to the success of Southwestern College’s cost-savings efforts. The group demonstrated excellent leadership and provided sound guidance to the administration, confirming its commitment to discharging its fiduciary responsibility.

This strategy may not work for every school district, but I have found it consistently works in the situations I have encountered. Be creative. Be smart. And work together as a team. This too shall pass.

Raj K. Chopra, Ph.D., is Superintendent/President of the Southwestern Community College District. Chopra joined the District in August 2007.

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