Schools' reprieve from further cuts may only be temporary

May 14, 2012
Photo by Seth Sawyers

Photo by Seth Sawyers

It is a sign of just how thoroughly the budget crisis has shaken the education landscape that good news can sometimes seem like bad news for California schools.

Last week’s revelation that the state’s projected budget deficit had soared from $9.2 billion to $15.7 billion had left many school officials anxiously waiting for details of Governor Jerry Brown’s May revision of his budget yesterday. They braced for having to make even more extensive cuts than the painful ones they had already made.

Yet Gov. Brown somehow was able to come up with cuts that did not touch schools directly. Brown’s budget message argues that under his plan school funding would actually increase by 16 percent, subject to voters approving his tax initiative in November. State funding for K-12 schools, it argues, would increase from $29.3 billion in last year’s budget to $34.0 billion by the end of 2013.

But that did not change the calculus that is already in place. The governor’s revised budget, which should have brought relief to school officials, was accompanied by his familiar warning that if his tax initiative fails to pass in November, public education would lose another $5 billion.

As the Legislative Analyst’s Office survey released week showed, 89 percent of school districts had already planned their budgets without assuming that Brown’s initiative would get a majority vote come November.

As if to underscore that point, Brown’s announcement of his revised budget came one day before school districts are required to finalize teacher layoffs, after issuing preliminary layoff notices two months ago. Not far from where Brown spoke in the State Capitol, Sacramento City Unified will lay off nearly 400 teachers and 300 support staff.  Not much further away, nearly 300 teachers and 100 support staff in San Juan Unified will lose their jobs when school closes next month. In Los Angeles, the state’s largest district—serving 1 in 10 of California’s public school students—has had to cope with an accumulated deficit of $2.6 billion over the past five years, as detailed in this chronology.

Now that federal stimulus funds have effectively run out, school districts are being forced to make even more extensive cuts as they reach the edge of the “the funding cliff,” as Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy described it at a hearing in Sacramento earlier this year.

Over the next few weeks, school districts will be preparing their final budgets for the 2012-13 school year, based on the new budget figures from the state, but they are unlikely to be much different from the budgets they had already prepared.

As an EdSource report described last week, school districts across the state are coping with multiple “stress factors” that are touching at the core of the education enterprise and having a cumulative impact on schools’ ability to provide a quality education to all their students. That will certainly be the case if districts cut back their instructional year by two weeks, which is what Gov. Brown warned will be one of the consequences of his initiative not passing

The layoff process itself costs school districts some $14 million in administrative costs — or about $700 per teacher, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report in March. That covers notifying teachers by certified mail, defending appeals against the layoff notices at administrative court hearings, and related costs.

“The dance of death,” was how Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez described it, “the soul-sapping, time-wasting annual ritual of figuring out how many of society’s most important public servants to push off a cliff.”

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