Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

The cardinal rule in budgeting is to know your income and your costs. Unfortunately, California’s public schools are not afforded this luxury. Instead, our state’s arcane education laws require that schools make their budgeting decisions long before they know what their revenues or expenses will be. It is impossible to function at an optimal level working under these constraints. School boards do the best they can, given the circumstances, but the inevitable guesswork comes at the expense of students, families, teachers, school staff and taxpayers.

Right now, the Legislature is considering the issue — but not in the way you might think. Instead of providing school districts with the tools needed to manage their finances with greater precision, lawmakers are planning to expand the current arrangement. Assembly Bill 438 would force local educational agencies into a devil’s choice — either commit even more of their money before they know how much they have — or reduce staffing to ensure they can pay their bills. This dynamic creates unnecessary disruption in schools, destabilizes conditions for California’s students and can upend the lives of employees. School districts get a relatively clear picture of their state funding when the governor and the Legislature agree on the state budget — which is adopted by June 15 at the earliest, but more typically in July when the final education budget is finalized. Yet, districts are required to make staffing decisions — which account for 80% to 90% of total school district budgets — four months earlier. Currently, school districts and county offices of education are required to provide classified staff, essentially skilled support staff working in a variety of positions, with a 60-day notice prior to any layoff.

Designed by school unions, AB 438 would eliminate the current 60-day layoff notice and establish an immovable date of March 15 by which school districts must decide whether to lay off classified staff. Right now, the March 15 notification deadline only applies to teachers and other certificated employees. AB 438 would force districts to determine which support staff to retain three months before the state budget is passed, four months before the education budget trailer bill is adopted, and six months before the school year begins. This system would eliminate any remaining flexibility school districts have to make accurate personnel decisions and preserve jobs once they have a clearer picture of state funding and enrollment for the coming school year.

We don’t have to go back too far to see the impact of the March 15 notice requirement — over the last two decades, thousands of teachers have received pink slips. Because the March 15 noticing deadline means that school districts operate in the dark about their finances, schools are forced to notice more teachers for layoffs than they otherwise would. They do this to avoid insolvency that can lead to a state takeover of the district and to avert a situation where lower-than-expected funding means they don’t have the money to pay staff they committed to in the spring.

This practice of “overnoticing” happens, although at a lesser scale, in nonrecessionary years as well and is a significant factor in driving teachers out of the profession. Even for those teachers who stay, the practice stokes fear and anxiety about their security while sowing doubt among the students and families they serve. And the teachers most impacted by overnoticing — those with low seniority — are disproportionately assigned to low-income schools with large populations of high-need students. We don’t want to extend these same consequences to classified employees, particularly when schools are already struggling to fill positions and to staff programs that have been expanded to account for the impact of Covid-19.

AB 438 is a classic example of placing adult interests before student needs. This legislation would further the chaos that March 15 notices currently visit on public schools. Californians can’t allow this practice to create more confusion and instability in our schools and should fervently oppose AB 438. The status quo is bad. Doubling down on it would be infinitely worse.

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Vernon Billy is CEO & executive director of the California School Boards Association, a nonprofit education association representing the elected officials who govern public school districts and county offices of education in California.

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