Money no longer there for education
Staff Reports
Created: 12/11/2010 08:36:16 PM PST

California’s massive 2011-12 budget shortfall won’t be closed without big cuts to public education.

The likely result doesn’t look pretty.

“Schools will become more and more like prisons and less and less like schools,” said David Plank, a professor of education at Stanford University. “You’ll have huge classes, restive young people and overworked teachers.”

Sound drastic? So is the budget crisis.

Soon after Gov.-elect Jerry Brown is sworn in next month, he will have to present a budget for 2011-12, a year that likely will be worse than any that California schools have endured in modern history.

On Wednesday, Brown noted the budget deficit over the next 18 months is likely worse than previously reported. He released figures showing California stands to lose another $2.7 billion from potential changes to the federal estate tax, swelling the shortfall through June 2012 to $28.1 billion.

“It is abundantly clear that we will be looking at another round of cuts from the state,” said Wayne Joseph, superintendent of the Chino Valley Unified School District. “The amount of cuts remains to be seen, but it is fiscally prudent for any district to try to plan for the worst-case scenario.

“Because we have endured so many cuts in the past, most future cuts will have human faces attached. This is the human tragedy that many people either miss or are oblivious to.”

The deficit is so huge that educators and officials either can’t think about it or can’t believe it.

That denial stems partly from successive years of cutbacks, when schools made do and Sacramento staved off disaster with accounting tricks, a bond, temporary tax increases and Uncle Sam’s stimulus funds.

Now, even as state tax revenues continue to plunge, those options are exhausted.

Part of the problem, educators say, stems from Californians’ mantra about education that sounds like a Target slogan: Expect more, pay less.

California already spends nearly the least per-student in the nation on K-12 education, and has among the largest class sizes, and the fewest counselors, librarians and administrators per student.

How much worse could it get? Possibilities that school officials are raising include:

A school year, already trimmed by five days in some districts, shortened by another week.

Layoffs of counselors, librarians, athletic directors, coaches – and even an end to after-school athletics.

Dozens of districts declaring insolvency.

The state schools system going into federal receivership.

Among the reasons schools are likely to be hit hard are the potential end of billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, and a $2billion drop in what the state guarantees education through voter-approved Proposition 98.

Edgar Cabral, a policy analyst for the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, calls the outlook “dire.” Some districts, he said, may go insolvent.

The immediate reason for the fiscal distress is that tax revenues are down, while costs – teachers’ salaries, health insurance and utilities – keep rising. In addition, California has a “structural deficit” – its services cost more than its taxes bring in. And the Legislature’s habit of putting off tough decisions.

Ontario-Montclair School District Superintendent James Hammond said he predicts another year of cash deferrals and suspension of Proposition 98.

“The state is just playing all sorts of smoke and mirror games to fund schools,” Hammond said.

Proposition 98 was added to the state Constitution in 1988 and aims to provide some predictability to school funding and a minimum level of funding for K-12 public schools and community colleges.

OMSD board President Sam Crowe also predicts that the state is not going to give the district the money that it is required to provide under Prop. 98.

“They’re not going to because they can’t, so we’re planning our budgets as if we’re not going to see any of that money,” Crowe said.

To offset cuts, the district is looking into installing solar panels on the rooftops of five district sites.

“It’s what we have to do in order to get some money coming into the district,” Crowe said.

If the Legislature doesn’t come to agreement in this month’s special session, it will hand off the hard decisions to Brown and a new Legislature convening in January. The lack of true action related to education concerns some.

“The bad news is that we heard (Wednesday) that our state finds itself again anywhere from $25 billion to $28billion in deficit,” said Gary Rapkin, Bonita Unified School District superintendent, at the district’s Wednesday night board meeting.

“But from my perspective the real bad news is the fact that (Tuesday) was the first day that the state Legislature went into session and that very first day, in those first moments of that first day, the Assembly put forth 131 new bills.

“I won’t go into detail about the 131 but some of them could absolutely be good material for `Saturday Night Live.’ And I am disappointed to say that because what we need is leadership.”

With the political difficulty of raising revenues, the state will likely face more budget cuts.

And because K-12 education comprises about 40percent of state spending, it will be nearly impossible to balance the budget without inflicting deep cuts to education.

The state may cut back on the per-student payments to districts, while extending them some budgetary flexibility to use state funds where needed rather than for specific programs such as busing or gifted-and-talented education.

The budget picture is so grainy that no one has specifics. But supposing a $4billion cut, districts would lose $644per student.

“It all depends on what happens in January. Until we know what the governor proposes for next year and what he has to say and if he’s going to recommend midyear cuts,” said Sherryl Avitabile, assistant superintendent for business services for the Redlands Unified School District.

“The board implemented a budget reduction prioritization plan for 2010-11 that lays out six levels of possible reductions that can be made based on how the state funds education. Currently, they are at the third level, which includes, among other cuts, shortening the school year by several days, increasing some class sizes and putting off the purchase of new textbooks for certain subjects.”

To save enough simply by reducing the school year, the state would have to cut back the school year to 150 days, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, which advises school districts.

To read entire story, click here.