Earlier this month, at the Jan. 9 meeting of the Board of Education, board President Shirley Issel officially welcomed Jerry Kurr as the Berkeley Unified School District’s new associate superintendent of business.
“I’m absolutely delighted to be part of the BUSD family,” Kurr replied. “And yes,” he joked, discussing his decision to take the job, “I am of sound mind.”
Kurr, who worked as a business consultant for the district starting in July, before taking the reins as associate superintendent Jan. 2, faces quite a task.
The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, a state agency that has been providing the district with financial advice since October, has projected a $1.6 million deficit in the district budget this year, a $7.8 million shortfall next year, and a $16.7 million deficit the following year if the board doesn’t make cuts.
In calculating this year’s $1.6 million deficit, FCMAT included a one-time payment from the district’s general fund to its “self-insurance fund,” which is $2.5 million in debt.
In an interview Friday, Kurr said the district may be able to eliminate this year’s deficit by spreading out payments to the self-insurance fund, which covers worker’s compensation and other liabilities, over several years.
But, the district will still have to make substantial cuts to avoid the shortfalls predicted by FCMAT in the next two years.
In the coming weeks, Kurr will be working with Superintendent Michele Lawrence, FCMAT and district staff to identify several million dollars in cuts for next year’s budget, and present the board with a package at its Feb. 20 meeting.
The district must move quickly because cuts will likely include layoffs, and, according to state law, the board must inform certain classes of teachers and certificated administrators by March 15 if the district intends to lay them off next year.
Berkeley educational leaders, and people who have known Kurr for years, say the associate superintendent of business will bring important skills and priorities to the table in identifying budget cuts.
“He’s facing some real major budget work this year,” said school board member John Selawsky. “For someone new to the district I can imagine that would be unnerving...But he seems unflappable. There’s a calmness and steadiness to him that I appreciate.”
Selawsky said Kurr’s experience in educational finance, including a 14-year stint as Associate Superintendent of Administration and Business Services with the Riverside County Office of Education, will also be helpful.
Dale S. Holmes, former Riverside County Superintendent, said that Kurr has developed an appreciation for the connection between finance and the classroom over the years.
“Jerry went from being just a business person to a person who understood what the funds in the district did to support the teacher in the classroom,” Holmes said. “He would know how to cut and he would cut from the non-instructional side first.”
“He’s very trustworthy, very dependable, very knowledgeable, very creative,” Holmes added. “When I’d leave on a Friday night, and saw his smile, I’d be happy, because I’d know that the computers would be working and the paychecks would be out on time.”
That sort of skill with basic systems is a hot commodity in the Berkeley Unified School District where, according to Kurr, an outdated, inadequate data system, and breakdown in basic business practices, have contributed to payroll problems, and the current budget mess.
Kurr said one of his top priorities this year will be moving the district toward a better financial data system. The current system, he said, is not “self-balancing.” When an employee makes an entry for an expenditure, for instance, it does not automatically transfer that expenditure to the “general ledger,” which accounts for the district’s total assets and liabilities. Instead, it requires a manual entry in the general ledger, creating room for error.
This year, Kurr will oversee a $700,000 transfer to a new self-balancing data system called Quintessential School Systems. The transfer should be at least partially complete by July 1.
Another top priority, Kurr said, is ensuring that employees are paid accurately and on time. The faulty data system, flawed processes for entering data into the system, the complexities of employee contracts, and recent turnover in the personnel and business offices have all conspired to create payroll problems, Kurr said.
For instance, he noted, contract changes have not been quickly reflected in employees’ actual paychecks since he has worked at the district.
But there are not just systems problems to be fixed, Kurr said. The associate superintendent of business said he will work to build a sense of teamwork in a department with historically low morale.
John Malone, who worked alongside Kurr as a business consultant earlier in the school year, predicts success in this area. “He’s a top notch manager of people,” Malone said. “He really makes sure the people he works with know how much they’re valued.”
In time, Kurr said, systems and cultural reform will pay dividends. “I really think this can be one of the best school districts in the state,” he said.