Schools facing financial mystery without any clues

01.14.2012 | San Francisco Chronicle | Jill Tucker

School districts across California are stuck in a state of financial limbo with no idea how much money they'll get to teach students next year.

They could get about the same as this year, or they could take their share of a $5 billion hit, which is the equivalent of about three weeks of school.

It's a level of uncertainty schools have never seen before.

Their budgets likely will hinge on whether a $7 billion tax measure proposed by the governor on the November ballot passes. If it's approved, schools would be spared from cutting their budgets by 6 percent or more.

This puts the districts in a bit of a pickle because the academic year starts two months before the election and school budgets will have already been set.

Without knowing what the election's outcome will be, district officials say they plan to prepare for the worst, as if the November measure didn't exist.

That means layoff notices will have been issued, lots of them. There will be larger classes, a shorter school year and cuts to libraries - and any art and music programs that survived prior budget cuts will likely also be eliminated.

Stick Timing

School district officials don't have much choice. Current law requires that teachers be notified of layoffs by March 15 before the next school year begins and changes that shorten or lengthen the school year must be negotiated with unions months in advance.

On the other hand, if districts cut their budgets and voters approve the measure, school officials will be hard pressed to restore staff levels and programs for the remainder of the year. That would require hiring teachers in November or December, transferring students to new classrooms, adding school days and ultimately creating enormous upheaval for families.

At the moment, figuring out what to do is a huge guessing game, one district officials don't want to play.

"Do you have a crystal ball?" asked Nancy Waymack, San Francisco Unified's executive director of Policy and Operations. "Information is what we need right now. We would like to know the ground rules. That would be nice."

To make matters worse, the governor's budget is creating other problems. It proposes eliminating transitional kindergarten, a new program districts are required by law to have up and running by September for children who don't turn 5 until the fall and aren't ready to start regular kindergarten.

Unless and until the Legislature overturns the law, districts would still have to offer the new program. Yet school enrollment for next year starts this month, and parents have already begun signing up to put their kids in transitional kindergarten.

Historic Uncertainty

There is always some uncertainty when it comes to school budgets. The Legislature decides what to spend on education well after districts adopt their own spending plans. But this year, even the Legislative Analyst's Office described Gov. Jerry Brown's budget as "awkward" for schools.

That's an understatement, district officials said.

In Sacramento, policymakers say they understand the frustration and they're doing what they can to get the Legislature to make some decisions in the coming months, well ahead of the June 30 deadline to pass a state budget.

The governor is "calling for early action on a lot of aspects of this budget," said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. "A lot of these things need lead time to be implemented."

The idea is to get legislators to pass some laws within the next couple of months to offer a contingency plan in case a tax measure doesn't pass.

That means things like giving districts the ability to shorten the school year below the current 175-day minimum or have flexibility in the timing of layoffs.

It also means, if they're going to do it, getting elected officials to eliminate transitional kindergarten as soon as possible so districts can tell the parents of some 125,000 eligible children to make other plans.

That would negate three years of preparation by districts to create the program.

"It would take a statutory action by both houses of the Legislature to undo the law," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored the measure. "It's not clear to me the administration fully understood the impact of the proposal.

"I think this is a nonstarter," he added. The program is "one of the few bright spots in public education. It's hard to imagine who would want to rain on that parade."

E-mail Jill Tucker at jtucker@sfchronicle.com.

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