NEWMAN - A number of new staff positions will be added in local schools next year to accommodate enrollment growth and better serve the physical and social/emotional health needs of students.

But the district’s trend of adding staff positions, which has been prevalent in recent years, could be slowing significantly in the future as enrollment growth and school funding both level off.

But there was still room in the recently-adopted 2019-20 budget to fund a number of additional positions, said Caralyn Mendoza, the district’s chief business official, though not at the rate of new hires approved the previous year.

The budget beefs up support services with the addition of licensed vocational nurses for Von Renner and Orestimba, as well as the creation of a maintenance and operations supervisor position.

Four teaching positions are being added at Yolo and one at Orestimba.

New instructional support positions authorized in the budget include a learning director at Hunt Elementary, a psychologist, a speech language pathologist and a mental health clinician.

“A lot of it is growth-related, while some of it relates to student needs. We are trying to target areas that we really need to focus on,” Mendoza told Mattos Newspapers. “With the addition of the mental health clinician and psychologist we will have a tiered intervention system for students. In the past few years the need for this has emerged, and it is something that districts are starting to focus on.”

Superintendent Randy Fillpot agreed that better meeting the health and social/emotional needs of students is pivotal to academic success.

“If you can’t function, it doesn’t matter how much math you know or how well you write,” he said.

The $41 million budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which started Monday, reflects a general fund deficit of approximately $800,000 and an overall increase in fund balances of more than $1 million, according to budget reports.

A large portion of that deficit is attributable to the district’s plans to spend one-time money which it has saved up in recent years, Mendoza noted, rather than ongoing structural expenses.

The district remains on solid budget ground, she emphasized, but is also closely tracking trends that could well lead to fiscal challenges in the future.

Enrollment growth and state funding increases during recent years fueled the district budget and enabled the district to significantly increase staffing.

Enrollment has grown from 2,792 students in April 2012 to 3,209 pupils last April, according to a district budget report. The district payroll has gone from 293 employees in 2012-13 to 402 staff members in the recently-concluded 2018-19 year.

But the enrollment is expected to stabilize, and going forward the district expects only cost-of-living increases to its funding allocation.

“There will not be a lot of new money, so you have to be careful. The costs of retirement pension increases are going to outpace any kind of COLA,” Mendoza remarked. “We are able to provide a much higher level of service to students, which was the goal of the state’s Local Control and Funding Formula. The problem is that if you only have a 3 percent COLA and your pension contributions are going up 10-12 percent, there will be a point where you cannot sustain that.”

Another concern is the possibility - if not likelihood - of an economic downturn which could result in education funding being frozen if not reduced.

While the district anticipates fund balances in the neighborhood of $6 million at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year, Mendoza said, that rainy day fund could be depleted fairly quickly in the event of a severe downturn.

“The rainy day fund will buy us a year, but that is about it,” she stated.

Against that backdrop, Mendoza reflected, the district will be emphasizing fiscal caution going forward.

“We have to make sure that we stay within what we have budgeted for the year,” Mendoza explained. “In past years, we’ve been able to take advantage as different opportunities have arisen because we have had surplus funds. This year, I’m a little more apprehensive about doing that.”