Help districts plan for disaster

Passing a state budget that assumes voters will pass a tax increase in November is unworkable for school districts, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has concluded. Instead, the nonpartisan LAO is urging the Legislature to pass a series of measures now that would allow districts to plan for a worst case scenario, including eliminating some program mandates, extending deadlines for laying off teachers, and making an even shorter school year optional.

“Although the state and districts continue to struggle with tight budgets, we believe the Legislature can take a number of actions to assist districts in managing their fiscal challenges,” the LAO wrote in presenting its third annual survey of districts and their responses to financial challenges.

In his budget, which he will revise in two weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed that the Legislature build in his $7 billion tax increase – and then mandate $5.4 billion in K-12 cuts, including an approximately $450 per student general revenue cut if it fails. But cutting budgets in the middle of a school year poses substantial contractual and practical problems for districts, which is why 90 percent of districts surveyed by the LAO reported they’re not counting on extra revenues in building their 2012-13 budgets. Many would wait until 2013-14 to include new money if the initiative does pass. (Districts may also be reading tea leaves. The latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed the initiative winning by a bare 54 percent margin.)

In order to soften the impact of budget cuts, the Legislature has given districts latitude to spend 40 categorical programs worth $4.7 billion as they want. Many have used the authority to stop funding adult education,  suspend purchases of textbooks and other programs. If they had their way, 80 percent of districts would terminate some earmarked expenditures, including Economic Impact Aid, the chief source of extra money for English learners and poor kids, highly successful Partnership Academies in high school, and the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), extra money for some low-achieving schools championed by the California Teachers Association.

Brown is proposing to permanently extend flexibility to nearly all categoricals as well, including class-size reduction, except he’d make that a key component of his finance reform, in which he would end categoricals and redirect the money to districts with English learners and poor children.

Since 2007-08, districts have cut 16 percent of administrators, 11 percent of teachers and 14 percent of counselors and other support personnel. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge)

Since 2007-08, districts have cut 16 percent of administrators, 11 percent of teachers, and 14 percent of counselors and other support personnel. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge)

The LAO qualifies its support for flexibility and for a phased-in weighted student formula. Concerned that districts might not spend money previously earmarked for disadvantaged students on those children, the LAO recommends either block grants or the adoption of restrictions until new accountability measures are put in place.

Other recommendations of the LAO:

  • Reduce the minimum school year from 175 days to 170 days and let districts decide whether to lay off staff or have a shorter year. The state would save $200 million for every day less, the LAO said. The survey revealed that 20 percent of districts have the minimum 175 days, while another 20 percent of districts have cut one to four days off the calendar.
  • Eliminate restrictions on contracting out non-instructional services and rules requiring the hiring of substitute teachers based on seniority, at a higher pay scale. The CTA and California Federation of Teachers will fight this proposal.
  • Change statutes to move the final date for laying off teachers from May 15 to Aug. 1. This would enable districts to factor in the final state budget in setting staffing levels. The LAO reasons that the change could save teachers’ jobs, since districts would no longer have to lay off more teachers than necessary in May while guessing how much the Legislature will fund K-12 education. (The CTA probably won’t like this idea either.)

About half of the 950 districts surveyed by LAO responded. They included eight of the 10 largest districts and 67 percent of the students in the state. Some of the findings:

  • Between  2007-08 and 2010-11, districts cut expenses 6 percent equal to $547 per student in response to budget cuts;
  • Districts have eliminated positions for 11 percent of teachers, 14 percent of support personnel such as counselors and 16 percent of administrators (CA already had the nation’s highest student to administrator ratio.)
  • While most districts have adopted some furlough days for teachers and staff, only 6 percent eliminated the automatic annual salary raises, based on longevity,  for teachers. Health care and benefit costs for districts rose 6 percent during this period.
  • Fully a quarter of surveyed districts reported that they cannot handle additional delayed payments from the state – deferrals – without cutting staff or programs, because they no longer can borrow internally or externally, from a county office of education or a bank. Brown has proposed paying down $1.6 billion of the $9.4 billion in deferrals if the tax initiative passes, but possibly adding another multi-billion deferral if the tax plan fails.
This entry was posted in Initiatives, Jerry Brown on by .

About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

12 thoughts on “Help districts plan for disaster

  1. Pingback: California schools not banking on new taxes from Jerry Brown — | The Maddy Institute

  2. capitolreader

    John points it out but I think it is worth expanding.  Unions won’t go for the LAO’s recommendations.  A highly respected, non-partisan government organization has made some modest, common sense recommendations that will be good for schools and good for kids.  But because this doesn’t sit well with the most powerful special interest in Sacramento, it will never happen. 

    NOTHING will ever get done on education as long as the CTA runs the show.  

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  3. navigio

    The CTA is running the show?  :-)
    When was the last time the CTA failed to properly conduct existing teacher evaluations, or voted to raise class sizes, or voted to allow districts to suspend buying text books, or voted to disproportionately cut funding to K-12 education, or voted to make schools pay for their own deferral bonds, or granted ‘tenure’ to a teacher who shouldn’t have gotten it, or.. ?
    Oh wait, thats not the CTA, my bad..

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  4. capitolreader

    Navigio -   “properly conduct existing teacher evaluations?” LAUSD and the local union are being sued because they are not properly conducting existing teacher evaluations.  Where does CTA stand on that lawsuit?

    Class size reduction?  Of course they support it. Fewer students mean more classes = more teachers = more dues for unions.  Putting a good teacher in every class would do far more for education than CSR.

    “voted to disproportionately cut funding to K-12 education?”  Of course not — Other people’s money is their lifeblood.  But HOW do they have that money spent?  The completely defunct system they have set up is for adults first, and kids second.

    I’ll stop there but I could go on.

    You have to have your head completely in the sand if you think the CTA isn’t in control and actually care about the quality of education.  Instead of touting what they haven’t done, maybe you should list some things they have done for students. 

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  5. navigio

    Oh, sorry capitol, I forgot that our legislators actually care about our children’s education. My bad once again..
    I hate to break the news, but the Stull act is much more than just performance-based evaluations. And if im not mistaken, jane doe v john deasy cites the union conflict only as it relates only to STAR-based performance, not for the rest of the evaluations. I would also point out that the stull act clearly stipulates that the data used should ‘reasonably relate’ to the behavior of the teachers. In other words, it clearly would disallow certain types of STAR data usage. In reality, the lawsuit may actually come down to an interpretation of whether single year (or any) STAR-based performance is relevant enough to determine teacher quality for the basis of these kinds of evaluations. Note, this is the same debate that is going on in public. Its probably no accident that the plaintiffs are being bankrolled by Eli Broad, but whatever..
    The lawsuit also makes the interesting point that LAUSD has never seeked reimbursement for any stull act activities (as many districts have–albeit they never get what they ask for). If this is true, it seems like a problem that falls directly to the board of education and the district administrative staff. Either this means they decided to implement none of the stull act (note, they could still implement the parts that arent based on STAR data–union contracts are not prohibiting that if the lawsuit is to be believed), or it means they implemented those non-STAR portions but took the money from the general fund. Either way, it seems obvious the CTA isnt the one making the mistake there. Again, probably no accident that John Deasy is the primary defendent, eh?
    Personally, I think this lawsuit is nothing more than a guise for enabling the interpretation of STAR data as being directly usable for evaluating teachers, nothing else. It is far from obvious that this would do anything to help the kids. And worse, if it is in fact NOT relevant for educational purposes, the money tied up in this lawsuit is something that directly DOES hurt kids.
    I would try to list some of the things that exist because of the union, but to be honest, that is not really the point here. I think the more appropriate question is whether the intent of focusing on the union is merely a way to deflect focus from the group of people who is really is hurting public education by failing to do their jobs (hint, its not the teachers).
    If you havent yet, have a read of an essay called ‘Schools that shock the conscience’ (Jeannie Oakes). Read some of the comments made by the defendant’s state witnesses (defendant was our (in this case, not so) great state). Note the undercurrent of policy statements based on the assumption that kids in poverty are not worth spending money on because their circumstance will override any attempt to provide them an education. Explain to me how that is putting kids first (well it does put some first, but discards the vast majority–note, SED status for minorities in public schools in this state is somewhere upwards of 80%!). If you can ever come to grips with what it is that the anti-public education ‘reformers’ truly want to do, and how they want to do it, maybe you’ll begin to understand why counter measures need to exist, and why they actually do end up helping kids.

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  6. el

    I’m not sure how changing the date from May 1 to August 1 really helps anything, because that’s still before the election. Districts will still have to decide whether to take a flyer or not.
    The early dates would not be a problem if the State wasn’t so flaky about the budgets it was sending, and if the base amount were adequate. The normal reason for layoffs is declining enrollment or program changes, and those are easily and rightfully done in the March/May timeframes. The situation here is that schools won’t know how much they’re getting per student until January – after the school year is half over.
    If the dates are moved, it should be a one year only change for this year’s particular uncertainty. There’s no good reason to make it permanent.

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  7. el

    I want to highlight this:
    Districts have eliminated positions for 11 percent of teachers, 14 percent of support personnel such as counselors and 16 percent of administrators (CA already had the nation’s highest student to administrator ratio.)
    The conventional wisdom is frequently that administration has been spared cuts, but these statistics make it clear that that’s not so on the average (though it could be so in individual districts).

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  8. navigio

    I think part of the confusion for dates exists because the layoff notice deadline comes before the constitutionally mandated date for the legislature to approve the state budget. In other words, school districts may need to guess on layoffs. Furthermore, district budgets are due jun 30th. This is technically after the date on which the state budget is supposed to be approved (june 15) but in practicality its usually not. However, I dont see why August would be any better than July, if the main point is to wait on the state budget. Note that pink slips are still in March and Im not sure how far up those could ever be moved.
    I agree on the fact that these deadlines currently exist for a reason and that simply undoing them in order to make it easier to balance a budget in one year, may be counter to those reasons in other years.

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  9. navigio

    @el.. I wanted to comment on those administrative numbers. I personally would take them with a grain of salt. I recently noticed one district who lost almost 30% of their classified staff in one year alone. After some probing, it turns out they didnt really ‘lose’ them, rather the number can fluctuate based on how those positions are funded and/or reported. Another of my pet peeves on the ‘accountability’ front. Its amazing that school districts dont have to report FTE for classified staff, or that its possible to have such variation from year to year due to something other than actual staffed differences. In short, my guess is classified staffing ratios are largely meaningless. I will continue to believe that until someone can prove otherwise. And believe me, I hope someone can…

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