Advocates and lobbyists for California’s K-12 school districts are expressing both relief and apprehension on the eve of the Legislature’s expected approval Friday of a 2020-21 state budget.
To a person, they say they appreciate the compromise that Gov. Gavin Newsom reached with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood; and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. The deal will raise spending to the current year’s level by restoring billions of dollars in cuts Newsom had proposed and will add more federal aid dollars to cope with the coronavirus epidemic.
But education officials are skeptical about whether they’ll be ready to fully reopen schools in August, as Newsom assumes.
“The situation schools are facing now is better than presented in the governor’s May budget revision,” said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association. “But it’s still a far cry from what is needed to reopen schools safely and effectively.”
“We appreciate the governor and Legislature’s commitment to public education,” said E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association. “However, the safety, health and well-being of students, educators and staff must continue to be our top priority in reopening schools and colleges as the Covid-19 pandemic remains a threat.”
Because the pandemic has thrown the state into a deep economic recession, the state is projecting that the minimum funding guaranteed for schools and community colleges will drop $11 billion next year. To restore that money, the Legislature pushed, and Newsom agreed, to let districts spend $11 billion more now but to delay paying the districts back for a year. They directed an additional $1 billion in state and federal funding to the nearly $6 billion in one-time federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to address learning deficits resulting from school closures and take other actions needed to restart schools. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which Congress passed in March, requires that all the funding for schools and colleges be spent by Dec. 31.
The CTA and school groups are calling for more help to underwrite expenses for cleaning supplies, masks and other safety equipment. Newsom and the Legislature strongly indicate in legislation accompanying the budget that districts should have enough funding to open the new school year, regardless. Districts should “offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible” in 2020-21, says Assembly Bill 77 (section 43504 b). The implication is that districts should not continue offering only distance learning as they did when schools shut down to stop the spread of the pandemic.
Organizations representing school boards and administrators disagree on whether the wording of AB 77 precludes districts from also offering distance learning to children whose parents want to keep them home during the pandemic or a blended model that combines distance and in-person instruction to students in shifts (section 43503).
Flint of the school boards association interprets the law to say that distance learning is only allowed when a local health officer “explicitly” orders schools closed to stop the spread of the pandemic. Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy & governmental affairs for the Association of California School Administrators, said that’s too strict a reading. Regardless of whether students have a medical condition keeping them out of school, distance learning can be offered to students who prefer it, he said.
“The option should be OK if parents do not feel comfortable for whatever reason,” he said. And social distancing requirements that public health officers already have ordered justify the use of a hybrid model, he said.
Meanwhile, civil rights and advocacy organizations for low-income students, organized as the Equity Coalition, in a June 24 “action alert” called for stronger distance learning oversight than in AB 77 to ensure that low-income students won’t fall further behind. They’re urging the state to require a minimum of 3 hours of live instruction per day, whether in-person or online, and a process for state agencies and county offices of education to identify and provide help to districts with “egregious” underperformance in distance learning.
Ban on most school layoffs
In providing districts more funding, Newsom and the Legislature agreed to protect all teachers and other school employees — including bus drivers, kitchen workers and custodians — from layoffs next year. The CTA and the California School Employees Association, representing classified workers, praised that decision as essential for adequate staffing for schools needing help to cope with the pandemic.
But organizations serving school boards and administrators counter that a blanket moratorium on layoffs denies districts the flexibility to make staffing decisions based on local needs. Some districts may have wanted to add instructional aides, who aren’t protected by the order, to help with hybrid learning, and reduce bus routes. With few options to cut expenses, many schools may “have to consider laying off staff that fall outside the restricted job classifications, and making cuts in other areas such as the arts, sports and other extracurricular programs,” the school boards association said in a statement. Oakland Unified, for example, may still need to make $16.5 million in unidentified cuts in next year’s budget.
Some districts already in dire financial condition before the pandemic struck had been planning to lay off staff. In a late addition to AB 77, this week legislative leaders extended the ban to prior layoff notices that had not yet taken effect.
Sara Bachez, chief governmental relations officer for the California Association of School Business Officials, said that “the reality is that districts facing higher expenses and uncertainty will have fewer tools in their toolkit.” She predicted that more districts will end up on the financial watch list for potential takeover by the state.
Zazueta said that preempting local control over employment decisions is “really bad policy” but said superintendents will deal with it and move ahead. “Our members are experts on making things work and are going to make every effort to do so,” he said.
Chris Evans, superintendent of Natomas Unified in Sacramento County, seconded that view. “It’s not like there isn’t some pain,” Evans said. “But I can’t complain about what the governor and Legislature came together on. They made education a budgetary priority in these difficult times. And that is appreciated.”
Unresolved funding issue
One budget dilemma that probably won’t be resolved by the end of the week involves the guarantee to districts that they will receive funding in 2020-21 based on their pre-coronavirus level of student attendance in 2019-20. Because the state funds districts and charter schools based on students’ average daily attendance, districts are worried about fluctuations in attendance due to waves of coronavirus infections and parents’ decisions to keep children home. The proposed reimbursement would lock in funding based on last year’s attendance.
But a consequence is that districts and charter schools that are growing or had planned to expand won’t be funded for additional students. “Most growing schools have already admitted students for the upcoming school year, have hired necessary staff, purchased materials, equipment and supplies, and committed to additional facilities expenses,” said Eric Premack, founding director of the Charter School Development Center in Sacramento. “The trailer bill does not address what growing charter schools should do, presumably leaving the schools with potentially devastating financial and operational consequences.”
“Thousands of parents have found charters and other schools open, safe and teaching students effectively,” said Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, a nonprofit organization advocating for low-income families and school choice. “Especially now during a pandemic, California should not be cutting out successful options for children and families.
Elk Grove Unified, the state’s 5th largest district with 63,000 students, will lose the revenue from an expected 550 additional students .
“We understand and appreciate the hold harmless clause in the budget trailer bill and its intent,” said spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton. But the district is calling for an adjustment that recognizes expenses the district will face in accommodating more students.