RODEO -- Despite the passage in November of Proposition 30, the statewide initiative that raised taxes to eliminate drastic cuts for schools, the tiny John Swett school district is still trying to avoid a looming fiscal crisis.

The district is spending down its reserves at a rate of about $700,000 a year and is on pace to exhaust them by the end of the 2013-14 school year to balance its budget of about $12.5 million, said Paul Disario, a fiscal adviser appointed by the Contra Costa County superintendent of education to help John Swett get its financial house in order.

The 1,600-student district operates a high school, middle school and continuation school in Crockett and an elementary school in Rodeo.

"Prop. 30 made it so we don't have to make more cuts," Superintendent Mike McLaughlin said. "But we are still far, far away from the appropriate amount of money per student."

The key to ending the crisis, according to Disario and McLaughlin, will be negotiations with the district's teachers union this year for reductions in the district's obligations for employee health care.

The district ranks fifth in combined costs for salaries and benefits and is highest in total benefits costs in the county, with no cap on what it owes for benefits, McLaughlin said.

"You either have high salaries and a cap in place or no cap and low salaries," he said.

John Swett will eliminate five furlough days next fall, but "people don't see that as a raise," McLaughlin said.


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"If Prop. 30 hadn't passed, we would have had to negotiate (the days) back in and cut a bunch of other things," he said.

The district's contract with the teachers union expires June 30. It has contacted the union about a start to bargaining but has not heard back, McLaughlin said.

"It's to a point where we have worked really hard to keep the state from moving in," McLaughlin said. "There's going to be some discussion because benefits are so high, $18,000 to $19,000 a year per employee."

Teachers union representative Michael Kinsley said the union plans to release its bargaining proposals in February. He disputed McLaughlin's assertion that the district provides among the highest combined salary and benefits packages in the county.

Separate from its operating budget, the district is also rebuilding its iconic brick high school building, dating from 1927, and adding new facilities to the campus using $20 million from a bond issue and about the same amount in grants from the state, McLaughlin said.

Contractors will begin remodeling the main academic building in March and complete a new music and arts building and a classroom/administration building by May, McLaughlin said.

"We're gutting the main building, increasing the size of the classrooms and cafeteria and fixing (disability) issues that they didn't have in building codes back in the day," he said.

District trustees voted 3-2 not to put a new bond measure on the November ballot last year to replace the aging Carquinez Middle School in Crockett.

The board majority cited multiple questions about the project yet to be resolved, including whether to build a new middle school in Rodeo or on the site of the old school, McLaughlin said.

"They all need to be in consensus of whether or not we need a new middle school at all," he said.