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Schools facing financial mystery without any clues

01.14.2012 | San Francisco Chronicle | Jill Tucker

School districts across California are stuck in a state of financial
limbo with no idea how much money they’ll get to teach students next
year.

They could get about the same as this year, or they could take their
share of a $5 billion hit, which is the equivalent of about three weeks
of school.

It’s a level of uncertainty schools have never seen before.

Their budgets likely will hinge on whether a $7 billion tax measure
proposed by the governor on the November ballot passes. If it’s
approved, schools would be spared from cutting their budgets by 6
percent or more.

This puts the districts in a bit of a pickle because the academic
year starts two months before the election and school budgets will have
already been set.

Without knowing what the election’s outcome will be, district
officials say they plan to prepare for the worst, as if the November
measure didn’t exist.

That means layoff notices will have been issued, lots of them. There
will be larger classes, a shorter school year and cuts to libraries –
and any art and music programs that survived prior budget cuts will
likely also be eliminated.

Stick Timing

School district officials don’t have much choice. Current law
requires that teachers be notified of layoffs by March 15 before the
next school year begins and changes that shorten or lengthen the school
year must be negotiated with unions months in advance.

On the other hand, if districts cut their budgets and voters approve
the measure, school officials will be hard pressed to restore staff
levels and programs for the remainder of the year. That would require
hiring teachers in November or December, transferring students to new
classrooms, adding school days and ultimately creating enormous upheaval
for families.

At the moment, figuring out what to do is a huge guessing game, one district officials don’t want to play.

“Do you have a crystal ball?” asked Nancy Waymack, San Francisco
Unified’s executive director of Policy and Operations. “Information is
what we need right now. We would like to know the ground rules. That
would be nice.”

To make matters worse, the governor’s budget is creating other
problems. It proposes eliminating transitional kindergarten, a new
program districts are required by law to have up and running by
September for children who don’t turn 5 until the fall and aren’t ready
to start regular kindergarten.

Unless and until the Legislature overturns the law, districts would
still have to offer the new program. Yet school enrollment for next year
starts this month, and parents have already begun signing up to put
their kids in transitional kindergarten.

Historic Uncertainty

There is always some uncertainty when it comes to school budgets. The Legislature decides what to spend on education well after districts adopt their own spending plans. But this year, even the Legislative Analyst’s Office described Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget as “awkward” for schools.

That’s an understatement, district officials said.

In Sacramento, policymakers say they understand the frustration and
they’re doing what they can to get the Legislature to make some
decisions in the coming months, well ahead of the June 30 deadline to
pass a state budget.

The governor is “calling for early action on a lot of aspects of this
budget,” said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. “A lot of
these things need lead time to be implemented.”

The idea is to get legislators to pass some laws within the next
couple of months to offer a contingency plan in case a tax measure
doesn’t pass.

That means things like giving districts the ability to shorten the
school year below the current 175-day minimum or have flexibility in the
timing of layoffs.

It also means, if they’re going to do it, getting elected officials
to eliminate transitional kindergarten as soon as possible so districts
can tell the parents of some 125,000 eligible children to make other
plans.

That would negate three years of preparation by districts to create the program.

“It would take a statutory action by both houses of the Legislature
to undo the law,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who
authored the measure. “It’s not clear to me the administration fully
understood the impact of the proposal.

“I think this is a nonstarter,” he added. The program is “one of the
few bright spots in public education. It’s hard to imagine who would
want to rain on that parade.”

E-mail Jill Tucker at jtucker@sfchronicle.com.

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