A Budget Nightmare in the Making
Gov. Schwarzenegger promised to protect education with his budget last week. And, in a sense, he was right: this year’s cut are not as deep and wide as they have been in the past two budgets. So it depends on your definition of “protect”.
The Governor failed to mention the $1.5 billion education funding cut called for next year; nor did he highlight the decreased cost of living adjustment. It’s not that his budget planners failed to tell him about the reductions–the governor earmarked $1.2 billion in administrative costs and $300 million in savings to be had by allowing districts to contract out for services. The problem is that those earmarks are unlikely to survive Legislative hearings. And then there’s the little problem of the cuts—many of which were made to administrative budgets–that have already been made over the past two years.
As things stand right now, the San Diego Unified District is facing the prospect of slashing roughly $95 million from this year’s budget to cover 2010’s expenses. That number will change, depending on the exact language used by legislators in hammering out a budget and the willingness of the Federal government to pony up additional funding. California schools won’t have a real number to work with until mid-May at the earliest. And then, if past years are any indication, they’ll have to borrow money (and pay interest) to cover operational expenses until the funds are actually released to school districts in October.
None-the-less, there are compelling legal reasons that make next year’s education budget an immediate crisis. School districts are mandated to have their budgets in place and existing labor union agreements require notices of any impending layoffs to be in the works by mid March. Of course, any cuts in budgets must not touch the dozens (some say hundreds) of State and Federally mandated programs. Here are just a few of these types of protected plans:
Class size reduction Program, Migrant Education Program, Education for Homeless Children Program, Federal Title 1 Program, Economic Impact Aid Program, Special Programs for English Learners, Adult Education Program, Special Education Program, Vocational Education Program, School to Career Program, Agricultural Education Program, Carl Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Program, Gifted and Talented Education Program, Independent Study Program, Library Services Program, Foster Youth Services Program, Alternative Education Program, Opportunity School Incentives Program, School Safety Program, Community Day School, Title 1 Reading First Program, Title V Innovative Programs, Title II Math and Science Partnership Grants Program, Teacher and Principal Training Program, School Breakfast Program, and (let’s not forget) No Child Left Behind.
Confusing? You betcha! It helps to think of the budgeting process as a four dimensional shell game, where the shells and the peas under them randomly appear and disappear. Last year the School Board went forward with a list of proposed cuts only to have to revise them on the fly as State legislators tinkered with mandated funding and the Federal government showed up at the table with a pile o’ stimulus money.
This year the SDUSD Board chose to take a different approach towards assembling a budgetary plan for next year: Dots. Instead of choosing from a menu of possible budget cuts, the school board came up with a list of philosophical priorities. Board members were given 25 colored dot stickers to indicate their votes for different values posted on sheets of butcher paper hung on a wall at the last school board meeting. Many of the values were all-encompassing, others were over-lapping and some had no possible dollar value attached to them (i.e., “don’t hurt kids”).
The plan, as it were, is for the staff financial planners to now price out these “values” so the Board can determine which programs listed under each category to fund. These dollar amounts will be reported to the Board on February 2nd, at which point decisions will be made.
Here’s a list of what the Board chose as its top values:
- Raising the achievement level of all students, including gifted kids, English learners and students with disabilities.
- A full curriculum including art, music, athletics, career technical education, programs in Old Town and Balboa Park, activities and classes that will make kids competitive for college admission.
- Diversity, integration and school choice, such as magnet schools.
- A safe and supportive environment including vice principals, police, counselors, nurses and instructional supplies.
- Maintaining current class sizes
- Classroom technology to help children learn.
As board member John de Beck pointed out, it’s likely that these “values” will total up to more “dollars” than the school district will have available for next year. So it’s unlikely that any of the district’s programs are “safe” in any sense of the word. Ultimately the choices that the school board will make will be dictated by the California budget that emerges from the wheeling and dealing in Sacramento. And it’s too soon to say just how much of a disaster that will be for San Diego’s public school kids, the parents who may have their lives re-arraigned next year with schools closings and program reductions and the people unlucky enough to have chosen education as a career.