RICHMOND -- If nothing changes in the way the state pays for schools, the West Contra Costa school district will run out of cash in a fund it created to cope with the economic downturn by the end of the 2014-15 school year.
West Contra Costa is spending down a $13.5 million rainy day fund for its daily operations at a projected average rate of $4.5 million a year, Finance Director Sheri Gamba told the district's board at its Wednesday meeting.
If the money runs out, the district will have to raise more by passing a parcel tax or cutting employees and programs, Gamba said.
"The board needs to be aware of the use of one-time funds and prepare plans for reducing commitments as one-time funds are depleted," she said.
The district is also shouldering nearly $20 million in annual payments for retiree health care and will be required to absorb any increases in these costs.
There is no way to predict how high these expenses could go, especially with health care reform on the horizon, Gamba said.
"This is coming out of our unrestricted general fund," she said. "Retiree benefits go up every year."
Some relief may be in sight because schools statewide are putting pressure on the Legislature to change the way California pays for education.
A temporary waiver of a requirement to lower class sizes to receive class-size reduction money for kindergarten through third grade is due to expire in June 2014.
Gamba has built $6.9 million into the anticipated deficit for 2014-15 to cover the loss of the funding, but the money could be restored if the waiver is made permanent, as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed, she said.
"We could continue to utilize the money despite the fact that we may not be implementing the program," Gamba said. "We know the Legislature understands (the problem)."
West Contra Costa has a $169 million budget for this school year. That will rise slightly to nearly $173 million next year before falling back to the current level in 2014-15, Gamba said.
The board learned before the meeting that the United Teachers of Richmond narrowly failed to ratify a contract agreement that would have granted teachers a 2 percent annual raise over the next three years.
If the offer had been ratified by the union and approved by the board, it would have added $2.1 million annually to the budget estimates. The two sides now head back to the bargaining table.
The board also held a hearing for Caliber Schools, a proposed charter school that would serve elementary and middle school students, primarily from Richmond, El Cerrito and San Pablo, beginning in fall 2014.
The school would begin with an enrollment of 270, rising to 810 by 2018.
More than 100 students and parents showed up to support a presentation from founding team member Allison Akhnoukh and her colleagues.
Akhnoukh said the school's goal is to help students get the skills they need for admission to competitive colleges. Caliber intends to teach computer programming "as a second language" and integrate "character development" into the curriculum.
Caliber expects that about 80 percent of the students it enrolls will come from low-income families, and 48 percent will be English language learners.
Akhnoukh said sponsors prefer to locate the school in Richmond.
The board is scheduled to vote on whether to back the charter petition at its May 1 meeting.