Los Angeles Unified and five other urban California school districts collectively enrolling about 1 million students warned Monday that “unrealistic” funding cuts proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in his revised budget would force them to delay reopening of schools this fall.
“Reopening our school campuses will require more — not fewer — resources to ensure and sustain proper implementation of public health guidance and the safety of all of those involved. Cuts will mean that the reopening of schools will be delayed even after State guidance and clearance from public health officials is given,” superintendents of the districts wrote in a three-page letter, dated May 18, to legislative leaders.
The letter comes less than a week after Newsom released his May budget revision that would cut funding for school districts by about $7 billion. That proposal includes a cut of $6.5 billion in general funding through the Local Control Funding Formula, which directs additional funding to high-needs students — low-income, foster and homeless students and English learners. That 10% reduction would be the first cut in the formula since its passage seven years ago. Signing the letter were superintendents of the state’s three largest districts, Austin Beutner, L.A. Unified; Cindy Marten, San Diego Unified and Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach Unified, as well as Vincent Matthews, San Francisco Unified; Kyla Johnson-Trammel, Oakland Unified; and Jorge Aguilar, Sacramento City Unified.
They sent the letter to Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and the chairs of legislative committee reviewing the education budgets.
The superintendents argued that the funding cuts, combined with the additional expenses to restart schools with measures to prevent spreading the coronavirus among students and staff, will be untenable without more state money and clear guidance they haven’t received. They cited protective equipment, cleaning supplies, additional counselors and nurses to take students’ temperature daily, more staff to handle students coming to school in shifts and efforts to address learning loss during school closures as among the potential costs.
“We cannot in good conscience risk the health and safety of our students and staff by returning to the classroom prematurely and without funding for the necessary precautions,” they wrote.
They suggested a half-dozen ways that the Legislature could provide financial relief not in the Newsom’s budget, including a utility surcharge to pay for computers and internet access for students and directing money from the state’s rainy day fund, called the Budget Stabilization Account, to K-12 schools. Newsom proposed tapping $7.2 billion from the fund in 2020-21 to fix the state’s projected deficit, but none of that would go to schools.
The superintendents called for precise guidance from the state on the actions needed to open schools.
“We cannot move forward with a plan without a price tag,” Marten said in an interview.
But both Marten and Steinhauser backtracked from the letter’s implied threat to postpone the start of school without more money. They said they will stick with their scheduled openings — Aug. 31 in San Diego and Sept. 1 in Long Beach, but a lack of funding will affect their plans.
“We have sent out the message we will open Sept. 1, but we don’t know what it will look like,” said Steinhauser, adding that each district in the state will make its own determination.
Los Angeles Unified has set Aug. 18 as the first day of school, but Beutner said earlier this month but not before “science and health authorities tell us it is safe and appropriate to do so.” Nothing has changed, a spokeswoman said in an email.
The superintendents also called for the Legislature to protect districts from liability in case students contract the coronavirus at school and to guarantee per-student funding for 2020-21, as Newsom assured districts for the current year.
Several Democratic and Republican Assembly members signaled they’d favor adding funding for K-12 to the state budget during a subcommittee hearing of the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday. Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, said he’d support “pulling from other priorities” to raise K-12 funding beyond the minimum under Proposition 98, the formula that determines how much of the General Fund goes to community colleges and K-12 schools. Based on a plunge in estimated tax revenues, the Department of Finance is projecting $15 billion less in Prop. 98 funding next year.
Newsom is proposing to blunt the impact of the $6.5 billion funding cut next year by steering nearly $6 billion in one-time funding from the federal CARES Act and to delay a portion of payments to districts instead of cutting their budgets further. In an analysis released on Sunday, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said that the net effect would be flat funding, “with federal funds and payment deferrals offsetting the reduction in Proposition 98 funding.”
But Steinhauser said that the CARES money would have to be spent by Dec. 31 on measures to reduce learning loss or to reimburse districts for COVID-19 expenses. While useful, the funding would not address “deep and ongoing expenses” districts will face now and in coming years in the event the economy doesn’t immediately bounce back.
Marten said mitigating a 10% cut in the funding formula won’t be enough to cover a possible 20% increase in expenses next year. Bringing students back to the classroom under multiple scenarios will cost more, she said.
“We have to act soon or risk prolonging distance learning,” she said.