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August 5, 2009 > Fremont Unified discusses budget woes and solar highs

Fremont Unified discusses budget woes and solar highs

By Miriam G. Mazliach

The school board meeting focused on two major issues, budget cuts and the district's new solar panel project.

Budget:

In Superintendent Werner's opening statement he commented, "We are working with site principals and have three major priorities this year: academic achievement, prudent fiscal management and communication. Since the Governor signed the budget, we anticipate more reductions and will keep parents and students informed via our website. We have a high performing school district and will work together collaboratively."

During the public's opportunity to respond, Hiu Ng of Fremont stated, "Parents have a voice regarding budget issues and education. Can we keep our school libraries open? What can we do? Can the community step up? More discussions are need. Our group will hold its first meeting here tonight."

Ng is part of a recently formed group of concerned citizens and parents, the Fremont Citizens Network. Originally started to oppose the proposed A's stadium in Fremont, this nonprofit organization wants to have more input and involvement with the school district in light of state reductions.

Assistant Superintendent, Business, Bill Stephens indicated that the budget deficit is spreading. He explained that we do not have additional money in the "Tier 3" unrestricted category funds for the 2009/2010 school year.

"We are deficit spending our reserves and there will be additional budget cuts in response to the newly signed state budget. But cuts now are not as bad as we thought," said Stephens. "Right now we have a $5.2 million deficit, rather than $8.5 million."

A revised 2009/2010 budget will be available for the August 26 School Board meeting.

Fremont Adult School students spoke out against the cutbacks in their programs. Lucy Lineback of CSEA protested the cutbacks and wondered why the Board had not told them of the $1.5 million cuts in June. "What happened with the stimulus money? Why isn't your staff answering us?"

Board Vice President, Lara York responded, "Last year we used the stimulus money, to help the Fremont Adult School. This year more that 18 positions will be cut. I know that's not good for our community or the services we want to provide. It's a difficult situation."

According to Board President, Larry Sweeney, "We have to protect our reserves as stimulus money won't be available to us this year. It helped us get through last year."

In regard to "Tier 3" block grant funds, he explained that those amounts have all been reduced. "We will have to provide services at a lower rate. How do we implement these programs? We are staying the course and trying to protect our reserves."

During the school board meeting the Fremont Citizen's Network held their own impromptu meeting in the hallway, to discuss what they could do to get answers to their concerns.

Ng wondered, "Why can't we use the Block grant funds? We need to see the budget as the numbers don't seem to add up. Why do we only have a few pages of budget information to examine now? What other adjustments can we make at the August 26 meeting? I think we have some flexibility."

Another participant, Kathy McDonald, President of Fremont Citizen's Network, commented, "The Board is being too conservative. We need to negotiate with labor unions and other partners. We all have to work together. We need to formalize some sort of action to deal with these cuts. It's a communication issue. Why is this district still giving salary "step and column" increases to teachers while laying off so many others?" According to McDonald, Fremont has the only "no layoff" clause for teachers in the state."

Responding to TCV, regarding Ng's concerns, Superintendent Werner stated, "We are going to free up all the money to take care of the kids. All the categories are difficult to understand and we're required to do certain things to keep them going. We still have to run programs."

Solar Panel Project:

Fremont Unified School District is on track to become the school district with the largest school solar program in the nation. The Board passed the motion to pursue the solar panel project. If approved at the August 26 Board of Education meeting, the panels could be completed by the end of December.

During phase one, free standing solar structures will be erected over parking structures and football fields at Fremont high schools and junior highs, plus one elementary school (Hirsch). This is a much safer and easier process than placing the panels on roofs, according to the school district's Director of Facilities Management, Therese Gain.

Fremont Unified School District has entered into a three-party agreement to buy power. Chevron fronted the costs for the solar credits application. Renewable Ventures is providing the financing for the power production and pays for installation. They will pay Chevron to put on the panels and handle the construction. The project is budgeted at $9.6 million.

Gain explains the solar power process. "Solar panels collect energy from the sun and convert it to electricity, feeding the electricity back to the district's system. There is no change to the classroom wiring and it is still powered from P G & E. We're just feeding power back to PG & E and getting credit against our electrical bill. We'll still be paying a portion, approximately 20 percent to PG & E, but we hope to save $154,000 in our first year."

Eighty percent of the schools' power will come from the solar panels. This will provide budget predictability and savings.

"Our district is taking the initiative to do this and it's a win-win situation," says Gain. "We will save money, help the environment and teach the students about the importance of solar energy."

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