California schools move closer to doomsdayUncertainty looms as talks end on tax extension
On Tuesday Gov. Jerry Brown called off negotiations with Republican lawmakers that were aimed at putting the tax extension up for a statewide vote in June. This move pretty much crushes any chances of sparing public schools from even deeper cuts for the next school year.
“Each and every Republican legislator I’ve spoken to believes that voters should not have this right to vote unless I agree to an ever changing list of collateral demands,” Brown said in a statement posted on his website. Those demands were included in a nearly five-page list presented to Brown by Republican leaders and published by the Los Angeles Times. Brown said some of the proposals would worsen the state’s financial crisis and he will not support them.
“It is hard to articulate the depth and breadth of what this cut will mean,” said Michael Hanson, superintendent of Fresno Unified. Hanson and I were on the phone yesterday afternoon when he began receiving text messages telling him the budget talks were dead. He said the district has cut $88 million over the past three years – a 20 percent reduction – and now faces another $71 million in cuts for next year under what he calls “Plan B,” which may cost the district 522 teachers and 26 people in the central office.
It’s not the answer Hanson wanted, but it lets him start planning for 2011-12, and that’s what he and other superintendents asked for at a press conference Monday on the steps of the state Capitol, where, he said, they called on the Legislature to “tell us now; don’t drag this out into the next fiscal year.”
Tuesday’s announcement also took Debbie Look by surprise. The director of legislation for the California State PTA was on her way home from a meeting of the Education Coalition in Sacramento when she heard the news on the radio. Although the deadline for getting a measure on the June ballot was perilously late, Look said Coalition members “were still feeling like things were moving forward.”
Cuts are hard to figure
It’s not exactly clear how much of a hit schools will take if there is no tax extension or eleventh-hour miracle. For every education organization, group, and department there’s a slightly different set of numbers depending on what’s considered a cut. But there is some general consensus. Even if the tax extension passes and the Legislature doesn’t suspend Proposition 98, school funding will drop next year. “The governor’s budget understated its impact on public education,” said Rick Simpson, Deputy Chief of Staff for Assembly Speaker John A. Perez. “They simply looked at the Proposition 98 minimum.”
What they didn’t take into account is a projected enrollment increase, another year without cost-of-living increases, and small growth in teachers’ salaries and benefits based on previously agreed-to contracts.
The estimates also vary widely on the magnitude of the next round of cuts if the tax extension fails to get on the ballot or win voter support. It will be somewhere between $2 billion and $5 billion, depending on whether the Proposition 98 revenue limit is just reduced, or lawmakers also suspend Prop 98. But if education takes the same proportional hit as other programs and departments, at 40 percent of the budget that would be $4.8 billion or about an additional $900 per student. The impact on each district will vary, depending on the size of their reserves and how much one-time federal jobs money they carried over.
Bob Blattner, a longtime budget analyst who heads his own financial consulting company for California schools, wrote a memo for his clients in January, explaining that even though they may be hearing about additional cuts of $350 per student, they should really be prepared for an additional hit between $800 and $1300 per student. “We believe, however, that the age-old adage ‘Hope for the best and plan for the worst’ applies now more than ever,” wrote Blattner.
School Services of California, Inc., where Blattner used to work, offers similarly dire warnings. Vice presidents Robert Miyashiro and John Gray say taking another $5 billion from education would put next year’s funding level slightly above the 1999-2000 level. “Thus, if the state cuts K-12 education funding $5 billion from the current-year level, districts will be expected to educate students with 1999-00 funding levels while facing 2011-12 costs, an untenable expectation,” write Miyashiro and Gray.
But untenable is looking more plausible after Tuesday. “Much is at stake, and in the coming weeks I will focus my efforts on speaking directly to Californians and coming up with honest and real solutions to our budget crisis,” said Brown in his statement. His communications staff wouldn’t elaborate on what that means; however, one idea under discussion is gathering signatures to put the tax extension on the November ballot. But that may be too late to help schools that will have already laid off teachers and implemented their “Plan B” austerity measures. It also poses a thorny political dilemma. The current tax increases expire at midnight on June 30. Any vote after that is no longer an extension of the current taxes; it becomes a new tax increase, and that’s a much harder sell to voters.