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Crowded and Strapped

news11Schools dig through sloppy budget for solutions

Back To School nights aren’t just a way for parents to learn how their child is performing anymore. At local schools, they have also become a chance for teachers to post wish lists of essential supplies, including paper and printer ink that the school can't afford to buy.

Teachers wish the situation were different. But because state contributions to the k-12 system have plummeted 18 percent in the last three years, and because more bad news is expected in Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012-13 budget, they say they have no choice but to seek out donated supplies.  

Many teachers even resort to paying out of pocket to keep their lesson plans rolling forward.

“I have always liked to supplement textbooks with handouts, but there have been times over the last few years when the administration has said 'We're out of paper,’” says Mark McConnell, a math teacher at Soquel High School.

Santa Cruz High School automotive repair teacher Barry Kirschen says the community has been extremely generous in donations of supplies—including cars—for his automotive classes. He also appreciates the community voting for past local and state ballot measures that saved some school programs and staff. However, local schools may be requesting more help at the ballot boxes come June and November. The Santa Cruz City School (SCCS) Board is considering asking locals to renew two parcel taxes on the June ballot that have funded academic counselor positions and library staff for five years.

“They are not designed to fill the gap of further state cuts. It is just to keep existing programs going,” says Kirschen. “It is only because of these parcel taxes that we have been able to staff our libraries with credentialed teachers.”

The private budget analysis group School Services of California (SSC) dissected the 2012-13 budget for school board officials at the Governor's Conference On Education in Sacramento on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Founded in 1975, the group offers the best information available about the impact on local schools, says SCCS Assistant Superintendent Alvaro Meza. They also monitor moves legislators are making and inform school districts at conferences throughout the state.

Meza says that the $175 per-person registration at the conferences was a bargain for the insight provided. The “overwhelming uncertainty” in recent state budgets shocks him even more than the cuts themselves.

“Right now we are looking at $2.3 million in mid-year cuts for 2012-13,” says Meza. “If the governor's tax initiatives fail, that goes up to $4 million.”

news1Soquel High School teacher Gayle Alaimo presides over her advanced placement biology class, which has 40 students. John Gray, vice president of SSC, says that before 2008, their job was to read the state budget and display information about the coming year for local school districts. Since the Great Recession began, they have started adding information about  “what if” scenarios to their materials. This year, they included scenarios depicting whether or not voters pass Gov. Brown's tax initiatives in November. It is estimated his plan would raise $6.9 billion per year by temporarily raising sales tax and income tax for those earning more than $250,000 a year.

“Ideally we would like to have no manipulation by us. We just get the numbers and report them to you,” says Gray. “But now they are doing so many strange things that sometimes we have to do some interventions.”

This cycle of cuts and chaos in Sacramento, which forces voters to legislate from the polls, will not go away anytime soon, according to SSC President Ron Bennett. He says it took six years to repair the damage to school budgets that resulted from cuts made by former Gov. Pete Wilson during the recession in the early ’90s.

“The [state] deficit was only 11 percent of the budget back then. It's 22 percent now,” Bennett says.

Continually ballooning class sizes are one of the worst results of recently shrinking budgets, says Soquel High School resource specialist Casey Carlson.

There are 37 students in each of the algebra classes that are made available to the special needs students she works with. Class sizes are already at the maximum limit outlined in the teachers' contract, but Bennett warns that bigger class sizes may be a reality next year, which would force school boards to negotiate new deals on teacher workloads. This is unacceptable to Carlson.

“Students are supposed to be moving higher and doing better on tests,” says Carlson. “But as the class sizes get bigger, you have less involvement with individual students and less supplies to go around.”

Electives such as art and music are the first place districts look for cuts so that they can retain core subjects like math, English and science. But Carlson says even those classes are short on supplies.

“Science teachers are having a hard time carrying out the labs they do,” she says. “Donations come in and teachers bring in their own things from home. It's sad that here in America, in this great and rich society, we can't provide these things to our schools.”

Kirschen, who teaches an elective, says that although schools must have English, social studies, math and science to keep their accreditation, an education without the option of electives risks the health of our society as a whole.

“It threatens the very fabric of our democratic society,” he says. “One of our core values has been a free public education, and that has produced the society we live in, that promotes personal freedoms creative thinking.”

Republicans in the state legislature are against raising any taxes to fund these programs and want more cuts to put the state's finances back in order. Reducing education funding to balance the state budget during recessions creates a cycle that may be hard to break in Carlson's view. She hopes that the painful cuts Gov. Brown is making now can break that cycle and return California to the reputation of having some of the best schools in the world.

She recalls a time in the ’70s, while she was a student at a private Catholic school, when her father wanted to move her into public schools, which he said offered more and were in better condition. He lost the battle to her mother, who wanted to keep her in the private Catholic school. Still, she finds this story symbolic of how much public education in the state has slipped in the last three decades.

“People used to say 'look at the schools in California, and the innovation coming out of here,’” says Carlson. “Now people are pulling their children out [and taking them] to

private schools.”

The journey that the state's educations system took to get to the back of the pack began during those years. California was ranked in the top five states nationwide for money spent per student when Carlson’s parents were debating where to have her schooled. It's now in the bottom five, with New York spending more than three times what California invests.

Supporters of bigger school budgets blame Proposition 13, which was passed in 1978. The ballot measure lowered property taxes, which is a major local source of school funding. It also required a two-thirds vote in the state legislature to raise any taxes or pass bills that would create more revenue. This has resulted in an explosion of the number of initiatives on the ballot each year because a two-thirds vote in the state senate and assembly is rarely possible.

Bennett, of SSC, believes the repeal of Prop. 13 would be a step in the right direction for the recovery of California public schools.

Photo: Keana Parker

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