Business side plays key role in success of Claremont schools

Moving forward into the 2013-2014 school year, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker is cautiously optimistic about the economic status of Claremont schools.

While the passage of Prop 30 has yielded no additional money for the Claremont Unified School District, it ensured that no additional money will be cut from California’s beleaguered school system. Under Governor Jerry Brown’s new Local Control formula, CUSD is poised to receive a little more funding than it did last year—this after years of seeing “flat or less” when it comes to state money.

Then there’s more than $13 million in proceeds from the sale of the old district office and service center, which CUSD will come into in the next year or 2. While it is reportedly “a drop in the bucket” compared to the district’s overall needs in the areas of facilities, safety and American Disability Act concerns, it still represents a much-needed influx of cash.

After years of weathering the storm of financial crisis, what does a year of relative economic health look like?

Once Ms. Shoemaker and her team close the books on the budget in September, presenting to the school board a finalized picture of how much money the district has to work with, the board may start to look at restoring some of the areas that have been cut over the past several years.

Such decisions may be based on the recommendations of Superintendent Jim Elsasser and his cabinet, which includes 4 assistant superintendents: Ms. Shoemaker, Bonnie Bell with educational services, Kevin Ward in human resources and Mike Bateman in student services.

School board members may also have certain priorities. For instance, school board vice president Steven Llanusa, who is running to maintain his seat in the 2005 election, has expressed an interest in restoring the $300,000 in transportation funds that were cut, precluding busing to many sporting events and field trips.

It may be about baby steps, and tentative ones at that, but CUSD is still in a notable position, considering growth when districts across the state are still caught in an economic tailspin.

How has the district managed to maintain its solvency amid the funding crunch of the past years? The formula has been flexibility and a lot of teamwork, according to Ms. Shoemaker.


Keeping the numbers steady

The flexibility she is referring to is in terms of enrollment. In recent years, many districts have seen a significant decline in enrollment, which has created a “double-whammy” effect. Such schools not only saw shrinkage in per-pupil funding; they lost funding altogether with each lost student.

Claremont schools, by contrast, have maintained steady enrollment for the last decade or so, according to Mr. Bateman. This consistency can be attributed to the fact that CUSD is “a destination district,” Ms. Shoemaker noted, with a healthy pool of students from other districts hoping to transfer into the district.

Claremont schools have the ability each year to accept as many or as few inter-district transfer students as they want, depending on how many district students are enrolled. There are some in Claremont who feel CUSD has too many transfer students, Ms. Shoemaker acknowledged. In fact, the diversity has allowed Claremont schools to maintain the funding that makes them exceptional.

Imagine if a school were to lose 20 students, the administrator posed. That would mean a teacher would need to be cut. And yet, the school would continue to have the same administrative overhead: salaries for the principal and the custodian, utility costs, etc.


No ‘I’ in team

Ms. Shoemaker also attributes the district’s resilience to an extraordinary amount of cooperation between each of its stakeholders—teachers, staff, administrators and parents.

At their meetings, the school board often takes a moment to acknowledge Ms. Shoemaker’s acumen in navigating the ever-changing terrain of state funding. She wants to make something clear: “I am not the savior of the district, by any means. It’s taken a huge amount of teamwork.”

Ms. Shoemaker—who has been with CUSD since 1996, starting as director of accounting—said signs that schools were in trouble came years before the crash of 2008. In the early 2000s, the state began to “play games,” deferring one of its regular payments for various school needs to the following year, and then another payment. CUSD, which still had to pay its employees and serve its students, began to feel the early pinch of financial hardship.

With the financial crisis, the district had the collective foresight to act.

“Everybody hunkered down. Everybody took a measured and cautious approach,” Ms. Shoemaker recalled. “It was not The Boy Who Cried Wolf running into the woods, but we weren’t ignoring the inevitable.” 

Ms. Shoemaker characterizes 2007-2008 as “the last good year.” After that, the district accepted there would be less money going forward and began to prioritize. A number of classified staffers were laid off or saw their hours reduced. K-3 class sizes were raised from 20 to 25, resulting in a loss of about 17 teachers. The unions for both teachers and classified staff accepted such hardships, albeit reluctantly, and for quite some time forewent asking for raises during their collective bargaining process.

The board also showed strength, because you have to be brave to make the heartbreaking and unpopular decision to cut employees, Ms. Shoemaker noted.

The role of parents in helping Claremont schools survive and thrive cannot be understated, she asserted.

The Claremont Educational Foundation existed for many years as a smaller organization called EdNet, raising some $25,000-$30,000 per year. In 2003-2005, when districts everywhere began slashing enrichment programs like art and music, it became apparent that more was needed in terms of school support.

Then Superintendent Sheralyn Smith, who hailed from a district with a flourishing educational foundation, advised that Claremont’s be bolstered, Ms. Shoemaker said. The district organized a budget advisory committee featuring parents and staff members, aimed at helping the public understand what Claremont Schools stood to lose.

The Save Our Schools campaign was born and the community has stepped up en masse, raising thousands of dollars each year to fund art and music in local elementary schools and technology at El Roble Intermediate and Claremont High School. For instance, CEF presented CUSD with a whopping $210,000 check for the 2012-2013 school year.

District personnel did their part by crafting and sticking to a budget each year that was based on the worst possible scenario for school funding offered by the state in advance of a formalized budget.

Ever the team player, Ms. Shoemaker credits her director of fiscal services, Karen Waltman, with helping her stay the course.

“She’s a genius when it comes to the numbers. She is known as one of the best in the state,” Ms. Shoemaker praised.

Despite her insistence that she has played only a support role in the CUSD success story, it’s clear that there’s “something about Lisa.” She’s thrifty but not cheap, as evinced by her fervent hope that the people of California will one day see fit to pay teachers higher salaries. She has a swift grasp of numbers and dollar signs and their repercussions, and can communicate such intricacies to the board and community in layman’s terms.

Ms. Shoemaker has the rare attribute of being both detail-oriented and a people person, whereas many chief financial officers are more stereotypically introverted.

“They’re in the back room with a green eyeshade and a cigar,” she joked.

For Ms. Shoemaker, it’s what’s going on out of the back room and in the classroom that motivates her. She and Ms. Whitman “share a passion for education,” she says.

“We’ve always tried to convey to our staff that we are here because of students,” she insists. “It’s all about the kids and what support they need. We wouldn’t have jobs, if not for them.”

—Sarah Torribio


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