Cuts and more cuts threaten school budgets

01.16.2012 | Mountain View Voice | Nick Veronin

The governor's recently published budget proposal is further complicating the already difficult task of planning for next school year, according to the head of the local elementary and middle school district.

For starters, by calling for the elimination of funding for home-to-school transportation and transitional kindergarten programs, the K-12 portion of the proposed budget sends mixed signals to his district, said Craig Goldman superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District.

Mountain View Whisman is required to provide bus service for its significant population of special education students. On top of that, a recently passed state law mandates that the district begin offering transitional kindergarten classes next year for students who fall within a specific age range.

And that's not even considering the likelihood of further trigger cuts, Goldman added. Gov. Jerry Brown's budget promises windfalls to K-12 education if voters approve tax increases in November and heavy cuts if they don't. Goldman, a pragmatist, has his district planning for the worst, while hoping for something not quite as bad.

Transportation

The district can barely pay for its transportation program right now, Goldman said. When the governor's $1 billion in trigger cuts went through in December 2011, the district lost about $250,000 -- half of its transportation budget. If the governor's proposal to eliminate transportation funding goes through, that loss will be doubled.

"We don't have the luxury of eliminating special education transportation, nor do we have the ability to completely cut out regular transportation," Goldman said. That means Mountain View Whisman will have to dip into its general fund to support its bus routes, weakening its ability to absorb any trigger cuts that could come in November when voters decide on Brown's tax proposals.

Transitional kindergarten

Without the $300,000 Goldman anticipates Mountain View Whisman needs to begin unrolling the transitional kindergarten program next year, there is no way he will be able to staff those classes -- which are meant to provide a smoother transition from preschool to kindergarten for students with early birthdays.

"We are moving forward as if transitional K is happening, but because of the governor's proposal, we need to be prepared that the program may be eliminated," he said. "We do not have the luxury of running a program for which we have no funding."

Paul Hefner, communications director for California Department of Education, acknowledged the "incongruity" between the state law -- which requires all elementary school districts in California to begin introducing such classes in the 2012-13 term -- and Brown's proposal. Hefner said that the district will not be required to provide the program if the state does not provide funding.

It's against California's constitution to require schools to implement a state-mandated program without state funding, he noted. A "trailer bill" will soon be written, which will likely do one of two things: amend the governor's proposal to eliminate funding for transitional kindergarten, or change the state law requiring school districts to begin implementation of the program next year.

Trigger cuts

While the governor has proposed to do away with the funding for both home-to-school transportation and transitional kindergarten outright, he has also proposed a series of what are called "trigger cuts" -- cuts that would only go into effect if voters do not pass his proposed tax increases of nearly $7 billion.

If voters pass his tax package, California schools will get a boost of $6.9 billion in funding -- paid for in higher taxes. However, if his tax package is rejected, schools will lose $4.8 billion in a trigger reduction.

Goldman said that planning next year's budget with the specter of such heavy trigger cuts looming over his district isn't making things easy.

"A huge portion of the budget is based upon the voters' passage of tax initiatives in November 2012, after the school year has started," Goldman said. Because the cuts would be triggered in the middle of the school year, it would be very difficult to make any meaningful adjustments to staffing levels, which account for the vast majority of the district's expenditures. "Those cuts would be draconian at a time where we would not be able to negotiate with faculty and staff in a manner that would result in savings for that school year."

Goldman isn't the only one upset by the prospect of the heavy trigger cuts to schools. Dan Schnur, who served as an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, identified Brown's budget as a "ransom note" -- a quote that was used in headlines for stories in both the Christian Science Monitor and Bloomberg Businessweek.

Hefner rejected the notion that the governor is holding the state's school's hostage. He said, rather, that Brown is doing what he has to do to "ensure we don't have further cuts to education."

An official statement from Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public education, said that the governor's budget "makes it clear that meeting that obligation (to our state's schools) will require additional tax revenues -- both to prevent new cuts and to finally turn the tide after years of devastating reductions to school budgets statewide."

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