Ventura County school districts are holding fast in their support for a cost-of-living increase they say they are due under state law, siding against Gov. George Deukmejian and local Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), and with state schools Supt. Bill Honig.
The ongoing brouhaha over money for public education centers on whether schools will get a 4.76% cost-of-living raise as approved by the state Legislature, or 3%, the amount in the final budget signed by Deukmejian on July 31.
The Legislature must decide by Friday whether to approve several proposals for spending $598 million in unallocated education funds, or the money will remain frozen until January, said Wright’s spokeswoman Catherine Morrison.
School districts say restoration of the 4.76% increase would help them balance budgets and restore programs and services, including maintenance and transportation, which have been cut.
In the past two weeks, Deukmejian has proposed several plans for Proposition 98 money that has been set aside, including restoring $97 million for specific programs and spending $220 million to reduce class size.
In a statement, Wright agreed with Deukmejian’s latest proposal, arguing that it would result in more funding for schools in Ventura County. Wright’s district includes schools in Simi Valley, Ojai and Fillmore, Morrison said.
Wright’s statement advocated Deukmejian’s idea of spending $220 million for class-size reduction, although the proposal includes no cost-of-living increase.
“The impact will be small at this time, but we must begin somewhere if we are ever to achieve our goals in this area,” the statement said.
But some Ventura school officials disagree.
“For us in Ojai Unified, the restoration of the cost-of-living adjustment would take priority over the reduction of class-size issue as proposed by the governor,” said Andrew Smidt, superintendent of the Ojai Unified School District. “Our district is running a deficit of $350,000. We would like to see that offset by the additional cost-of-living increase before we get into class size reduction.”
Ventura County school officials argue that the cost-of-living increase is important because the money goes to basic school programs and can be used by the districts at their discretion.
The various proposals under negotiation in Sacramento would help some districts and hurt others, some Ventura school officials said, but a statewide cost-of-living increase would benefit all districts.
“We’re certainly not in favor of the proposal for class size reduction--it’s ridiculous” said Supt. Marlene Davis of the Fillmore Unified School District. Davis said schools are short of space and would have no room to put the additional classes that would result from reducing class size.
Other local districts and educators groups, including the Tri-Counties Education Assn., said they also favor the 4.76% increase, according to association President Robert Collins, a teacher at Simi Valley High School. The association represents districts in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
This week, state Controller Gray Davis stepped into the school budget fray, saying he would ignore Deukmejian’s proposed budget cuts and issue checks to local school districts, including those in Ventura County, for the full 4.76% increase.
But some school officials questioned whether there would be sufficient money to maintain funding at the 4.76% level for an entire school year.
“We may be playing mathematical games here,” said Supt. Norman Brekke of the Oxnard elementary district. “I’m not going to be spending any of this money until I’m absolutely certain it’s available.”
Although most Ventura school districts approved their final budgets by July 1, districts that have not must present final balanced budgets by early September under state law.
“The state is making it very difficult for local school districts to do responsible budgeting when the dollars are so uncertain,” Brekke said. “It has a lot of us at the local school district level somewhat bewildered as to who’s on first base. Until the umpire rules, we’re going to stand pat.”