If two budgets weren’t enough, do 3

Strategies for getting tax questions on ballot

Not knowing what will happen in four months, most school districts are building two budgets for next year: the good one, if voters in June agree to extend $11 billion in temporary taxes, and the bad one, in case they don’t. Steve Rhoads thinks they should create a third: the (really) ugly. Create that one on the assumption, he says, that the defeat of taxes will result in much bigger cuts to K-12 schools than the administration and most school officials are open to discussing at this point.

Rhoads, principal consultant for Strategic Education Services in Sacramento and adviser to several large districts, says his advice is a dose of realism.

The good budget, which is what Gov. Brown proposed last month, basically maintains the current K-12 funding level of about $50 billion. The bad budget, with taxes rejected at the polls, would automatically lower funding by 4.4 percent, or $2 billion, because the Proposition 98 funding level – what the state is by law obligated to spend to fund schools – would drop that amount with a drop in revenue. School districts are hoping, without any solid basis, that Brown will limit cuts to that amount. But Rhoads doubts that Brown and the Legislature will cut social services and prisons $10 billion more on top of the $12.5 billion Brown’s proposing already. “It is hard to imagine that we will not be cut more. I would prepare for at least another $2 billion of cuts,” he writes in a memo to clients.

The next two billion would be the most painful, but Rhoads isn’t advising using the plan for its shock value. Districts also have to worry about the Chicken Little effect and voter cynicism. Two years ago, Gov. Schwarzenegger predicted the worst if voters rejected the same tax extension. When they did, he backed off, and the state muddled through with gimmicks.

In his State of the State address on Monday, Brown didn’t talk about dire consequences; instead, he called on legislators to put the tax questions on the ballot so as “not to block a vote of the people.”

At this point, it’s probably premature for doomsday talk. A month from now, when districts issue March 15 layoff notices as part of their “bad” budgets, the impact of severe budget cuts will begin to become apparent. And Brown’s big challenge now is to persuade at least five Republicans in the Legislature to vote to put the tax extensions on the ballot. Guilt-tripping them with knocking kids off medical care and laying off state workers never works.

So what might persuade Republicans – perhaps more than five – to break ranks? Strategists I’ve talked to agree on three points:

  • Convince Democrats to pass Brown’s proposed budget with $12.5 billion cuts now and don’t wait until June, as difficult as that may be, as a quid pro quo to Republicans and proof to voters that the Legislature did its part; now it’s their turn.
  • Encourage Democrats to compromise and agree to some Republican demands for some regulatory reforms and changes to public pensions. Brown has indicated he’s open to these issues but hasn’t gotten specific yet, at least not publicly.
  • Raise the temperature on potentially vulnerable Republicans. Badgered by national anti-taxer Grover Norquist, all but two Republicans elected to the Legislature in 2010 signed a pledge not to support any new taxes. Two years from now, at least for some of them, there will be a  political sea change. They’ll have to answer not to conservatives in the Republican primary but to moderate voters in  open primaries  in which the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, will move on to square off in the general election. And they’ll be competing in newly drawn districts whose boundaries weren’t fixed to preserve either conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats.

Labor unions are already identifying Republicans who might be at risk. Others who care about education funding should, too. One potential target is Republican is Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a newly elected Republican from San Luis Obispo and one of the Republicans who didn’t take the pledge. His district stretches 230 miles along the coast to Saratoga, near San Jose.

One of the new parent advocate groups that have formed over the past year, Bay Area-based Parents for Great Education, has launched a letter drive for parents to contact their Republican legislators, starting with Blakeslee. Executive Director Hoi Yung Poon notes there is little time: The Legislature must vote within six weeks to put the tax extensions on the June ballot.


  1. Nice ideas, put perhaps it is time to do what Obama’s “stimulus” failed to do when it replaced the drop in state funding: serious efficiency changes at the state and the district level.
    This will not happen until the districts feel pain. Real pain, not just pretend savings from shuffling people around and cuts at the margins. Until this year the overall spending on students did not decrease, despite sky-high whining by administrators and teacher unions. Consider this:
    “[O]ver the last several years, the expression “budget cuts” has been heard often regarding K‐12 public school district expenditures in California. In reality, total expenditures (excluding Capital Expenditures) have increased every year from FY 2003‐04 through FY 2007‐08, before leveling off in FY 2008‐09. If Capital expenditures are included, the Total Expenditures have increased every Fiscal Year.” http://publicpolicy.pepperdine.edu/davenport-institute/reports/updated-analysis-k-12-education/content/updated-analysis-k-12-education.pdf
    Real pain may force districts to re-negotiate their labor contracts. Their pension plans. Their staffing plans. Their hiring and firing plans. Their (mostly) ineffective curricula that necessitate expensive after hours tutoring and supplementation. Their adherence to ideological dogmas of teaching everyone the same material at the same pace, rather than provide individualized grouping and effective instruction. And so on, and so forth.
    So I say to the Republicans: don’t give in! Force the crisis on a system that refuses to change itself for decades.

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  2. In response to Lycos and quoting the Pepperdine study: The study does not include utilities, restroom supplies, custodial supplies as part of the expenditures made at a school site. This in part is due to the directions from CDE for accounting for such expenditures. Ask yourself if a district turned off the lights, water, telephones, technology; closed restrooms; and did not clean calssrooms, or the cafeteria how would that affect the instructional program? Looking at 1 elementary school district in 2006/07 their funding per pupil was $5,293.54 if the child was in school every day. In 2010/11 this same district’s funding is at $4,984.19, and under the Governor’s proposed budget for 2011/12 it will be $4,966.25. During this time frame the State and Federal governments have placed more requirements on school districts, utility companies have raised fees, health costs have increased as have general operating costs. Class sizes have increased and many workers in education have been laid off. The percentage change in funding to education has decreased 14.5% between 2007/08 and 2010/11. In the same period Health and Human services has only decreased 9.3%.

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  3. You have to have blinders on, Lycos, to deny that districts have not experienced wrenching changes over the past three years as a result of indisputable budget cuts. I may agree with you about needed changes to work rules and tenure rights. Laying off tens of thousands more teachers and administrators (the ones who would do the performance reviews you no doubt favor), throwing 5-10 more kids per classroom, shortening the school year are all improper and ineffective ways to try to achieve these goals. Mean-spirited, too, and harmful to kids.

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  4. John,
    Mean spirited? Harmful to kids? Methinks you got carried away a bit.
    I simply observed that we have a wasteful and ineffective system, and that it has been protected from the necessity of making significant improvements by the influx of federal dollars. Do you claim that our educational system is not wasteful? Do you claim that it is effective? Do you claim that until last year it was not largely protected? I thought so.
    So what’s your beef? That I am “mean spirited” and that instead we should throw more money at the system so it can continue to ignore all these things? We have more than doubled the expenditures per student, in inflation adjusted dollars, since mid 1970s (and before prop 13). Has our system become less wasteful since then? More effective?
    I did not suggest to add 5-10 kids per classroom (which, in theory, should save perhaps 25-35% of budget given current class sizes and the fact that 85% is spent on personnel). We have about 300 thousand teachers and other certificated personnel in our state (about one per 21 students). Do we really need another 300 thousand paraprofessional, clerical and custodial personnel to take care of them? Do we really need to go to class size of 30 or 35 to save 5% of the budget? Reminds me of how bureaucrats always cut first where it will hurt the public most to avoid budget cuts.
    No bureaucracy improves itself until it has no choice. We should leave it no choice. Cut. Right now. You might be surprised how we can suddenly do more with less.

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