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Board gets response to grand jury report

By: Cheri March The News Messenger
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Trustees of the Western Placer Unified School District were presented with the district’s draft response to a critical Placer County grand jury report on Tuesday, but had little time to review the document after receiving it shortly before the meeting. “We got it basically the same time you did,” board president Paul Carras told attendees. The district is due to submit a final version on Friday. Carras and district superintendent Scott Leaman had been asked by the grand jury to respond to 11 recommendations made in the June report, which charged that the district made many errors and misjudgements in facilities construction and financing during the past decade. In the draft response, the board president and superintendent called findings of the grand jury investigation “an important reality check for our school district.” They agreed completely with eight of the recommendations, and in part with three. In response to the suggestion that the district continue its aggressive communication efforts with the public, Carras and Leaman outlined plans to overhaul the district’s Web site as a communication tool. They also vowed to improve communication with developers, using methods such as an information kit explaining district plans to prospective homebuyers. Some of the jury’s suggestions have already been implemented, such as a more streamlined organizational chart, a cutback on building plans and a decrease in risky, short-term funding, the response said. Carras and Leaman also promised to maintain closer communication with the board of education and the public and to focus on advancing the district’s partnership with the city. But they disagreed with a recommendation to form a construction department separate from facilities and maintenance. While laudable, they said, it may “not be the most cost-effective approach for managing our facilities plan.” They also balked at a suggestion to offer the high school farm to other districts, preferring to “expand its use based on the educational plans of the district,” and corrected the jury’s belief that the district should have oversight over district foundations. Though the district can work to educate foundation leaders, they said, it doesn’t have the authority to enforce the actions of independent groups. The final version of the district’s response will be available on Western Placer’s Web site, www.wpusd.k12.ca.us. As of Tuesday, it seemed some of the financial troubles that led to the investigation could be relieved by a new source of funding. Terri Ryland, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, said she recently discovered that the district might be eligible for a one-time settlement from the state, a possibility it has begun to pursue with the California Board of Education. Currently, a percentage of the district’s property tax money is transferred each year to Horizon Charter School, she explained. Had the district retained that money, it would have qualified as a basic aid school and thus received state funding. And according to the education code, a district that loses basic aid statutes because of transfers to a charter school is in line to get the money back, she said. The settlement could include money from the 2002-03 school year until potentially 2013 and – though the district doesn’t yet have a specific figure – could be “potentially millions,” Ryland said. “There is a portion … we are entitled to and I am pursuing it night and day,” Ryland said. Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board agreed to renew Leaman’s contract for another year. Trustees praised the superintendent for his handling of the district’s recent budget woes and for his communication efforts with the board and the public. “For a person who has been a superintendent for a brief period of time, he’s seen more than most superintendents have in five years,” said Paul Carras, the board’s president. “I think he’s done (his job) openly and honestly. We use the word transparent a lot, but that’s Scott, that’s what he’s trying to do.”