Local schools could face mid-year budget cuts

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The state’s dire financial situation could mean $2.2 billion in cuts for California K-12 education.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

The impact of California’s budget crisis could leave the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District facing mid-year cuts, meaning fewer teachers and electives, and larger class sizes. The budget crisis’ affect on schools was discussed last week on Wednesday at local school district offices by state and local education leaders.

California Assemblymember Julia Brownley, President of the California PTA Pam Brady, SMMUSD Superintendent Tim Cuneo and Superintendent of Los Angeles County School District Darline Robles provided their respective analyses in a forum titled “Why Sacramento Matters: How it Impacts our Schools,” sponsored by the California League of Women Voters Education Committee.

Brownley, who was on the SMMUSD school board for 12 years prior to being elected to the state Legislature, said the state fiscal situation is the worst it has ever been in the history of California, particularly because the forecast for the next five years is “bleak” and that, in the long term, there could be annual budget shortfalls of $225 million a year in California.

Brownley partly credited the situation to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reducing the state’s vehicle license fee, which created a deficit, thereby stimulating a downward borrowing cycle on the part of the state, compounded with the national and global economic situation.

Earlier this month, Gov. Schwarzenegger convened a special session of the Legislature and offered a proposal to handle what the governor’s office called the “drastic problem” of the state budget. “California is facing a hole of $11.2 billion in lower revenues than when the state budget was signed just six weeks ago. To remedy the urgent situation, the governor is prescribing a combination of cuts and revenue increases-all of which must be taken as quickly as possible to prevent a cash crisis and an even larger budget problem next year,” stated a press release from the governor’s office.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal calls for $4.5 billion in cuts and $4.7 billion in increased revenues/taxes, which includes reducing higher education funding by $132 million and Proposition 98 funding, which requires a minimum spent on K-14 education each year, by $2.5 billion. Forum speakers said this cut could mean $2.2 billion in cuts for California K-12 education.

Superintendent Robles, who is in charge of the nation’s largest regional education service agency servicing 1.7 million students, said that in California 80 percent of school funding comes from the state, and hence, the health of the state general fund directly impacts local school systems.

Unlike other states, localities do not have as much control over funding for their school district, and while districts like SMMUSD have been supportive of increased funding for K-12 area schools, they don’t have that much wherewithal, Robles said.

If the state Legislature does not approve Schwarzenegger’s proposals or a consensus for another solution is not reached, local districts like Santa Monica-Malibu will have to make cuts mid-year. At least 50 teachers could be cut from the SMMUSD [currently there are 650], and school staffs could be restructured and class sizes could become larger, SMMUSD Superintendent Cuneo said. Additionally, health services and electives and “all the things we cherish, we could potentially lose in the future,” Cuneo said.

“If we don’t see that every child matters, we won’t move into the 21st century,” said Robles, who added that the cuts could mean $327 less per child, per year. “We’re up against China and we have to stay competitive.”

“We need to invest in education today or we won’t be able to fill the jobs of the 21st century. Do we want to import jobs or create jobs in California,” Brownley added.

Brady said the state PTA ran a survey of PTAs around California and asked how they personally had been asked to respond to the budget crisis. Brady said 62.5 percent of the PTAs that responded said they had been asked to increase funding to cover the state budget shortfall’s impact on schools. At least 36 percent of those said they had been asked to raise a minimum of $25,000 or more over the course of the next school year.

In response to the question from a forum audience member last week, “Have we set an unattainable goal for California?,” all panel members said no. Even in the current economic crisis, the goal should be higher, they said.

“There was a time when we talked about an investment,” Brady said. “It isn’t about a balance sheet, it’s about investing in California, it’s about what California was in the past and what it can be.”