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Hanging in the Balance

news1K-12 financial security hinges on governor's tax initiative

The financial future of K-12 education in California is murky, to say the least.  

The best-case scenario hinges on Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, which would temporarily raise sales tax by a half-cent and income taxes for those making more than $250,000, passing at the ballot boxes in November. If approved by voters, these temporary increases, which would expire after five years, could generate an estimated $7 billion, and go on to fund local schools, community colleges, and public safety realignment.

If voters do not pass Gov. Brown's initiative, another $4.8 billion in cuts to public education—equivalent to the cost of operating three weeks of public education throughout the state—will occur.

In December, the governor announced trigger cuts that went into effect, including an $80 million reduction to Prop. 98 general funding and $248 million taken from school bus funding, totaling almost $330 million in reductions.  

Michael Watkins, superintendent of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (CoE), feels that the billions in cuts that have been made to education in recent years have put “public education behind the eight-ball.”

According to the report “A Decade of Disinvestment: California Education Spending Nears the Bottom,” put out by the California Budget Project, the average amount spent per K-12 pupil in the United States is $11,764. The 2011 report ranks California 46th in per pupil spending (averaging $8,908 per student), and last in student-to-teacher and student-to-librarian ratios, which are 20.5-to-one and 5,489-to-one respectively.  

Additionally, as Gov. Brown's budget proposal states, “Since reaching an all time high of $56.6 billion in 2007-08, Proposition 98 funding of K-12 schools and community colleges slipped to $47.6 billion for the 2011-12 year.” That is $9 billion that has slowly “slipped away” from public education.

“We've had to cut electives, reduce teaching staff, reduce administrative staff, reduce support staff ... and there is a projected deficit for the next year,” says Watkins. “So clearly I am concerned about maintaining the quality of public instruction with the continued cuts. It's a major concern, and it should be a major concern for families, as well.”

He points the finger at Sacramento’s poor budgeting practices (“California always plays fast and loose with their budget and that's why we're in the situation that we're in,” he says), and says most Santa Cruz districts were prepared for the trigger cuts that came in December.

news1-2Brett McFadden, the chief business officer for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, worries about how state budget cuts to public school transportation will affect students in his district who rely on buses to get to school. “We knew it was smoke and mirrors. I mean who really thought the economy was going to grow $4 billion in six months? It wasn't going to happen,” Watkins says. “We advised districts to be conservative.”

Due largely to reserve funds, districts including Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS) and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) will be able to continue “normal” services. However how much longer they can do so is uncertain.  

PVUSD Chief Business Officer Brett McFadden saw the trigger cuts as “unfair,” due mainly to the state's decision to cut $248 million specifically from school transportation.

“The most recent cut we took was particularly troublesome because the state came in and told us where to cut, and if we have to take a cut we have to take a cut—we may not like it, we may disagree with it, but at the end of the day that's the final say from the state,” says McFadden. “But don't tell us where to cut. Let us make the decisions. We have a locally elected board, elected by the people in the district, and that board is represented with a staff, and we can do our analysis and decide where it is in the best interest of our students to make these reductions.”

He adds, “If we are to be entrusted to run this district, then you trust us completely. Don't tell us how to make reductions. Let us make reductions that we believe can still protect our instructional program.”

McFadden goes on to describe how, in the past three years, PVUSD has had $17 million in reductions to their programs and personnel, and describes a slew of ways in which the district has felt said reductions. He says the transportation cuts will hit PVUSD especially hard, given that they transport close to 40 percent of their student population, while the state average is “around 17 to 18 percent.”

“My school transportation program was reduced to half,” he exclaims. “Am I going to stop transporting kids?... No. I have to eat that cost. This is why you maintain healthy reserves—because you can't trust the state. We maintained healthy reserves so we can shoulder these hits ... and give ourselves time to adjust and time to react.”

McFadden attributes his district’s high transportation use to two factors: geography and socio-economic disadvantages.

“We have a lot of rural areas in our district, we represent basically half of the county in terms of size, [and] we also have a high percentage of students that have socio-economic challenges,” says McFadden. “In many instances both parents are up early for their jobs, many of whom work in agriculture, out in the fields, and it's the students getting themselves ready in the morning, or their grandparents helping them get to the bus stop.”

He worries about what further cuts to transportation could mean for PVUSD students.

“If I was to reduce my transportation program by anymore than I already have, my fear is that it will start to affect my ability to ensure that students get to their desks at school,” he says.

Assistant Superintendent of Business Services of SCCS, Alvaro Meza, says the district is also able to cover the mid-year trigger cuts due to money saved in reserves. However, the district will probably see further cuts in preparation for the worst-case scenario.

“Thanks to our board and their great fiscal stewardship, we had reserves sufficient enough to sustain this mid-year cut,” Meza says, adding that they had more than $2 million saved just for the occasion. “We still have to make cuts in 2012-13 despite the magnitude of these current mid-year cuts not being so great …”

Meza claims that the uncertainty of public education funding will continue until a “reliable budget” or “a source of stability that is based on income taxes,” is established. When pushed for an estimate of the district’s 2012-2013 fiscal year cuts, Meza says, “it could range from $2 to 5 million that we have to cut,” but that there is no way to know how the ballot measures will fare in November. For now, he says, they just have to plan for the worst.

“[With] our layoff notices for teachers and working with our bargaining unit, we can't make unilateral decisions in November—we have to plan in March, at the very latest, for certificated positions in any year,” says Meza. “We'll just have to work closely with our bargaining unit and our board to make sure they understand that we are planning for a scenario in which the voters don’t support Gov. Brown's initiative in November and move forward in that direction.”

He’s hopeful, however, that voters will end up passing Gov. Brown's initiative.

“I do suspect that if given the chance, California voters will support public education and public safety,” he says. “I think we have a good track record of that within our county. We have strong community support because they value education.”

For Watkins, California K-12 needs more than temporary solutions.  

“We haven't changed our business model in a millennium,” he says, “and, really, as we rethink public education, [we should look for] ways we can use technology more, look at competency-based instruction, the length of day, [and] look at whatever else there may be left to do to engage with students.”

McFadden believes that, at this point, it's up to local governments to protect education as much as they can within the coming months.

“This is a big state,” he says. ”It's always going to be tough to run this place, but we've had a breakdown in fundamental governance systems that have been in place. The state is messed up, so we're going to take care of ourselves. Our job is to take care of our kids, and by God that's what we're going to do.” 

Comments (1)Add Comment
...
written by Kate PVUSD School Bus Driver, February 01, 2012
Brett McFadden is right. We must mobilize our communities and save school bus transportation. I know that if the Latino Community was kept well informed, I have seen them in action: WORK HARD --- TELL EVERYONE YOU KNOW - WE MUST KEEP OUR FLEET GOING. I transport 300 kids a day, and I am just one of 79 drivers. We cannot make parents drive thousands of kids to school. We cannot let kids walk long distances, in the dark, with no sidewalks. We have a whole new fleet that emits 50 times less emissions than the old stinkers. Talk it up. Write about it. And get out there and vote. Thank you.

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