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Cuts and more cuts threaten school budgets

01.16.2012 | Mountain View Voice | Nick Veronin

The governor’s recently published budget proposal is further
complicating the already difficult task of planning for next school
year, according to the head of the local elementary and middle school
district.

For starters, by calling for the elimination of funding for
home-to-school transportation and transitional kindergarten programs,
the K-12 portion of the proposed budget sends mixed signals to his district, said Craig Goldman superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District.

Mountain View Whisman is required to provide bus service for its
significant population of special education students. On top of that, a
recently passed state law mandates that the district begin offering
transitional kindergarten classes next year for students who fall within
a specific age range.

And that’s not even considering the likelihood of further trigger cuts,
Goldman added. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget promises windfalls to K-12
education if voters approve tax increases in November and heavy cuts if
they don’t. Goldman, a pragmatist, has his district planning for the
worst, while hoping for something not quite as bad.

Transportation

The district can barely pay for its transportation program right now,
Goldman said. When the governor’s $1 billion in trigger cuts went
through in December 2011, the district lost about $250,000 — half of
its transportation budget. If the governor’s proposal to eliminate
transportation funding goes through, that loss will be doubled.

“We don’t have the luxury of eliminating special education
transportation, nor do we have the ability to completely cut out regular
transportation,” Goldman said. That means Mountain View Whisman will
have to dip into its general fund to support its bus routes, weakening
its ability to absorb any trigger cuts that could come in November when
voters decide on Brown’s tax proposals.

Transitional kindergarten

Without the $300,000 Goldman anticipates Mountain View Whisman needs to begin unrolling the transitional kindergarten program next year,
there is no way he will be able to staff those classes — which are
meant to provide a smoother transition from preschool to kindergarten
for students with early birthdays.

“We are moving forward as if transitional K is happening, but because of
the governor’s proposal, we need to be prepared that the program may be
eliminated,” he said. “We do not have the luxury of running a program
for which we have no funding.”

Paul Hefner, communications director for California Department of
Education, acknowledged the “incongruity” between the state law — which
requires all elementary school districts in California to begin
introducing such classes in the 2012-13 term — and Brown’s proposal.
Hefner said that the district will not be required to provide the
program if the state does not provide funding.

It’s against California’s constitution to require schools to implement a
state-mandated program without state funding, he noted. A “trailer
bill” will soon be written, which will likely do one of two things:
amend the governor’s proposal to eliminate funding for transitional
kindergarten, or change the state law requiring school districts to
begin implementation of the program next year.

Trigger cuts

While the governor has proposed to do away with the funding for both
home-to-school transportation and transitional kindergarten outright, he
has also proposed a series of what are called “trigger cuts” — cuts
that would only go into effect if voters do not pass his proposed tax
increases of nearly $7 billion.

If voters pass his tax package, California schools will get a boost of
$6.9 billion in funding — paid for in higher taxes. However, if his tax
package is rejected, schools will lose $4.8 billion in a trigger
reduction.

Goldman said that planning next year’s budget with the specter of such
heavy trigger cuts looming over his district isn’t making things easy.

“A huge portion of the budget is based upon the voters’ passage of tax
initiatives in November 2012, after the school year has started,”
Goldman said. Because the cuts would be triggered in the middle of the
school year, it would be very difficult to make any meaningful
adjustments to staffing levels, which account for the vast majority of
the district’s expenditures. “Those cuts would be draconian at a time
where we would not be able to negotiate with faculty and staff in a
manner that would result in savings for that school year.”

Goldman isn’t the only one upset by the prospect of the heavy trigger
cuts to schools. Dan Schnur, who served as an aide to former Gov. Pete
Wilson, identified Brown’s budget as a “ransom note” — a quote that was
used in headlines for stories in both the Christian Science Monitor and Bloomberg Businessweek.

Hefner rejected the notion that the governor is holding the state’s
school’s hostage. He said, rather, that Brown is doing what he has to do
to “ensure we don’t have further cuts to education.”

An official statement from Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of
public education, said that the governor’s budget “makes it clear that
meeting that obligation (to our state’s schools) will require additional
tax revenues — both to prevent new cuts and to finally turn the tide
after years of devastating reductions to school budgets statewide.”

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