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Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

Although not the most familiar refrain to West Coast natives, residents in the rest of the country know that while the summer heat may be tough to take, it’s actually the humidity that truly makes us uncomfortable. Through the last few years of state budget crises, school boards across the state have adopted an analogous mantra: “It’s not just the cuts, it’s the uncertainty.”

Of course, cuts to already underfunded schools are both terrible policy and painful dilemmas for local districts. But school board members who take their responsibility very seriously know that making difficult budget choices is part of the job, and most do everything possible to minimize the negative impact on their students.

But the problem does not end there. If local school boards had some certainty around budget cuts, we would at least know our target. It would be painful, but reasonable minds could find the “least worst” solution. However, our dysfunctional state system for funding education delivers us a one-two punch – we know there will be cuts (we’ve had them for the last four years), but we rarely know the magnitude.

Why? Before last year, it was due to two main reasons: (1) The Legislature rarely finished its budget on time, and (2) even with an established budget, it chronically overestimated the state’s financial health, instituting cuts midyear. This is the “humidity” for a school district – a wet blanket that weighs down its ability to make optimal decisions because it doesn’t even know its target.

This year the Legislature passed its budget on time, largely thanks to Proposition 25, which allows for a simple majority to pass a budget and withholds legislators’ pay if it isn’t on time. Yet despite this on-time budget, we ironically have less certainty than ever. The budget has a contingency in case the governor’s tax measure does not pass in November – the “trigger cuts” to education. Our year will be almost halfway over when we know if these cuts will be triggered, long after our ability to make any substantive changes for the school year. The biggest expense in a school district is people – teachers and other employees. There are very few levers a school district can pull to reduce its expenditures in the middle of a school year, and many districts have already decimated their reserves from the prior four years of cuts.

So, how have school districts planned their 2012-13 budgets with this wet blanket of uncertainty? A survey done by the San Mateo County School Boards Association showed that most of the Revenue Limit districts in the county have adopted a different mantra: “Fool me once, shame on you … fool me twice, shame on me.” In fact, we’ve been fooled multiple times, so many districts have budgeted assuming the tax measure will indeed fail, and have already made cuts locally in anticipation. Some districts also believe that even if the tax measure succeeds, greater cuts will happen than what is currently outlined in the budget because of the state’s track record of overestimating its financial health.

But not all districts have the reserves to take this conservative approach. According the California School Boards Association, almost 20 percent of all school districts in the state have a “qualified” or “negative” certification from their second interim report this past spring, meaning they may not, or cannot, meet their financial obligations through the next three years. These districts will be forced to make massive cuts and/or roll the dice hoping that the tax measure will pass. If it doesn’t, we will see many more districts across the state facing negative certification or the possibility of state takeover. Even within our county (San Mateo), at least one school district has already negotiated its own automatic trigger cuts with its labor groups (including reductions in salaries and a shorter school year) if the state tax measure fails.

In any case, as we enter the summer months, I hope that our state legislators realize that local school board members would say that if they had to turn up the heat on school districts, we would at least prefer that it be a dry heat.

Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the executive committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. In his business career, Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both startup companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.


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  1. Navigio 4 years ago4 years ago

    There aren't any administrators left to waste time and energy. :-P I wonder how long it will take before districts start deciding to force kids to repeat grades due to too short of a school year. That would wake someone up in Sacramento. Are there any limits on how many kids can repeat a grade? I remember hearing at one point that a mid year cut over a certain percentage would not require negotiation for furloughs and/or … Read More

    There aren’t any administrators left to waste time and energy. 😛

    I wonder how long it will take before districts start deciding to force kids to repeat grades due to too short of a school year. That would wake someone up in Sacramento. Are there any limits on how many kids can repeat a grade?

    I remember hearing at one point that a mid year cut over a certain percentage would not require negotiation for furloughs and/or salary cuts, ie could be imposed unilaterally. Does anyone know whether that is a state law or maybe a local contract stipulation (assuming I am remembering correctly)?

  2. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    By the way, the amount of administrator time and energy that’s been spent trying to deal with the rapidly changing financial circumstances is time and energy that’s coming away from students and school services.

  3. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    My concern with the Our Children Our Future money is that it is supposed to be earmarked only for new services, new teachers, etc. It's not supposed to be used for raises or new administrators. For districts where the teachers have elected to work the full school year for less pay rather than taking furloughs, or for districts who cut already scarce administrators, I guess they will be SOL. I'm not sure if restoring furlough … Read More

    My concern with the Our Children Our Future money is that it is supposed to be earmarked only for new services, new teachers, etc. It’s not supposed to be used for raises or new administrators. For districts where the teachers have elected to work the full school year for less pay rather than taking furloughs, or for districts who cut already scarce administrators, I guess they will be SOL. I’m not sure if restoring furlough days counts as funding for “new teachers” or as a raise.

    TOP-Ed had a story of elementary schools sharing a principal across two campuses. As I read the initiative, that district couldn’t use the money to go back to a principal for each site. Whether or not there is room to wiggle out the best use of the money for each district I don’t know. So I see it as giving less autonomy, ironically.

  4. Sandy Piderit 4 years ago4 years ago

    How has the San Carlos school district dealt with the funding contingencies that are created by the state budget deal, that makes us so dependent on whether prop 30 passes or not? Pleasanton's district budget included cuts to balance the budget, and contingent agreements with the teachers and classified employee unions for 4 furlough days to cover the shortfall that could be created if prop 30 fails. From my perspective, the drawback of this approach is … Read More

    How has the San Carlos school district dealt with the funding contingencies that are created by the state budget deal, that makes us so dependent on whether prop 30 passes or not?

    Pleasanton’s district budget included cuts to balance the budget, and contingent agreements with the teachers and classified employee unions for 4 furlough days to cover the shortfall that could be created if prop 30 fails. From my perspective, the drawback of this approach is that it means that voters will not see any increase in school district efforts to enhance learning if prop 30 wins. They will just see a full 180-day school year (what we have always done). If school districts could point to something new and better that they would do with the prop 30 money, then I think prop 30 would have a better chance of passing.

    What is your personal opinion about Prop 38, the Our Children Our Future initiative? Advocates say that it would raise more new money for schools for a longer time period, and give local school boards more autonomy about how to spend that money. Would it help to reduce the wet blanket of uncertainty that school boards have had to cope with over the last 4 years?

    Replies

    • Seth 4 years ago4 years ago

      Sandy -- San Carlos budgeted assuming the Governor's tax measure will fail. However, if the tax measure fails and essentially creates a new baseline (meaning that the cut isn't restored the following year), we will need to make dramatic cuts to stay above 3% reserves starting in 2013-2014. To your second question -- like CSBA, I support both the Governor's and Molly Munger's initiative, because either or both of their passage will be … Read More

      Sandy — San Carlos budgeted assuming the Governor’s tax measure will fail. However, if the tax measure fails and essentially creates a new baseline (meaning that the cut isn’t restored the following year), we will need to make dramatic cuts to stay above 3% reserves starting in 2013-2014. To your second question — like CSBA, I support both the Governor’s and Molly Munger’s initiative, because either or both of their passage will be better than the status quo. But neither is a real structural solution to our byzantine finance system.

  5. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    Agreed. And these are not small cuts or small uncertainties - they're on order between 5% and 10% of the general fund money in some instances. Districts are committing to budgets in mid-June and the legislature isn't committing to the funding until the following January or February. People talk about changing the pink slip dates for staff. The pink slip dates aren't the problem. It's the revenue uncertainty that's the problem. It's the fact that in … Read More

    Agreed. And these are not small cuts or small uncertainties – they’re on order between 5% and 10% of the general fund money in some instances. Districts are committing to budgets in mid-June and the legislature isn’t committing to the funding until the following January or February.

    People talk about changing the pink slip dates for staff. The pink slip dates aren’t the problem. It’s the revenue uncertainty that’s the problem. It’s the fact that in these crazy years districts have no idea how much money to expect. I’d say the uncertainty has been as high as +/- $800 per ADA… but who am I kidding. I mean +$0/-$800.

    The tension is that every child in the district only gets one 1st grade: the school board has the responsibility to make it the best 1st grade year possible. But then, every child also only gets one 2nd grade… and the board has to ensure that 2nd grade experience is also the best it can be. Four, five years later – by 2014 we will have a whole cohort of elementary school graduates who have lived only under this austerity and uncertainty.

  6. Angie 4 years ago4 years ago

    You mentioned that some school districts in San Mateo county have already negotiated automatic trigger cuts with teachers if the tax initiative fails. Are you talking just about furlough days? What districts are those?

    Replies

    • Seth 4 years ago4 years ago

      Angie — for example, I know that the Redwood City School District has an automatic trigger clause in their union contract, which I believe does include salary reductions and furlough days. I don’t know all of the details of their agreement, however.

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