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County Office of Ed rescinds offer to help Lone Pine

June 25, 2014

The Inyo County Office of Education officially cut both the “strings” attached to its offer of funds to the Lone Pine Unified School District and the offer itself.
The Lone Pine board made no final decision in response to the county’s offer of funding for facility improvements in exchange for a number of conditions at its June 18 special meeting, deferring action until this evening’s board meeting.
The board had called the special meeting, and then scheduled tonight’s, after receiving a letter from the Inyo County of Office of Education, signed by all five Board of Education trustees, in which Inyo County Superintendent Terry McAteer, offered LPUSD $361,500 for needed facility upgrades in exchange for the “immediate adoption of our entire governance, leadership assistance and fiscal stability plan.”
The letter also called for the “immediate transition of the Board Presidency,” training and coaching for the trustees and the appointment of former county Superintendent George Lozito to serve as interim Lone Pine superintendent (in the absence of Victor Hopper who has accepted a position in the San Joaquin Valley). Lozito would stay for a year, following the hire of a permanent superintendent, to mentor the new elementary school principal, Heidi Torix.
In addition, the county office required the district allow McAteer to seek assistance in resolving what was described as “the Sierra Sands dispute” and called for an end to the isolation created by LPUSD administrators.
The Lone Pine board’s reaction was not initially positive.
As a result, “we felt there was little interest,” said county Board of Trustees President Chris Langley. “We were offering a hand of support. We weren’t trying to ‘take them over.’”
The county office sent a letter to the Lone Pine trustees, dated June 18, stating that McAteer and his board were “sorry to learn of your rejection of our thoughtful proposal … ICSOS remains committed to serving LPUSD.” The letter goes on to itemize support currently provided to the district.
With McAteer out of town, Langley offered some clarification. The county office has an obligation to see that area districts’ finances, governance and administration are operating smoothly, he said.
Much of the anger expressed at last week’s Lone Pine board meeting stemmed from the tone of the county’s letter and what were described as “exaggerations.”
Langley explained that the county’s intent was to prevent worst-case-scenarios in the district’s financial situation.
The county’s offer of help painted a dire picture of deficit spending and disputes with Sierra Sands Unified School District over the Coso Geothermal operation property tax split, a dispute described as possibly heading toward legal action.
What trustees and administrators took as exaggerations were simply pictures of what could happen, explained Langley.
Lone Pine Superintendent Victor Hopper explained last week that no attorneys are involved in negotiations with Sierra Sands and that discussions are focused on the interpretation of the new state funding formulas. According to Suzette Poirier, the district’s financial officer, negotiations are on a positive track.
The district’s budget has yet to be approved; action will be taken at tonight’s board meeting, Poirier said. “We’ll be looking at options to reduce deficit spending,” she explained. With fluctuating income predictions, specifically from the Coso value appraisals, both Hopper and Poirer said the budget, projecting three years out, is a work in progress.
“We have a full plate at the county office,” said Langley. “We had to do this (the initial June 12 offer) quickly.” Langley explained that the Office of Education wanted to fund the facility upgrades, including a $337,000 renovation of the middle school science center, but also wanted “to make sure we weren’t just dropping the money in their lap with no responsibility going forward. I’m sorry they took it the wrong way. Lone Pine has a lot of challenges ahead and we wish them well.”
The Lone Pine board meets this evening in the district conference room on Hay Street, going into open session at 5 p.m.

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