San Diego County schools avoided major teacher layoffs this academic year, despite dire budget predictions made last spring, but educators made deep cuts in administrative and maintenance areas that they fear could haunt them next year.
The local impact of the state's 1991 budget crisis has also brought to the fore the major frustration of school districts that are left with a process requiring them to draw up spending plans early in the year, only to scrap them months later when the state finally decides how much education money to provide.
In averting painful teacher layoffs--which would have reverberated throughout all areas of the school system--county districts used several onetime cost reduction strategies, and delayed other expenses for a year or more.
Among the strategies:
* Three of the county's 10 largest school districts offered early retirement programs, and more than 500 veteran teachers took advantage of them. Those teachers were, in turn, replaced by younger, lower-wage teachers.
* Three of the 10 largest districts, with the notable exception of San Diego Unified, raised their class sizes by one or two students, despite the fact that schools throughout California rank only ahead of Utah as having the nation's largest teacher-to-pupil ratio.
* Almost every district slashed budgets for deferred maintenance and capital expenditures, meaning that everything from new computers and to painting to purchasing new school buses and replacement of broken windows will go largely unfunded.
* Teacher training and conferences were cut by almost every district.
The feared layoffs of teachers and counselors, however, were averted, and all of the county's 10 largest districts have hired new teachers this fall, partly to compensate for retiring teachers, but mainly to keep up with growth.
San Diego Unified, Sweetwater Union High, Poway Unified, Grossmont Union High, Vista Unified, Chula Vista Elementary, Cajon Valley Union, Oceanside Unified, Escondido Elementary and La Mesa-Spring Valley school districts served 277,000 of the 391,000 students in the county last year.
Educators said many savings taken this year, such as early-retirement programs, are onetime reductions that can't be made in the future.
In addition, spending postponed this year, such as for maintenance of school buildings, purchase of equipment and training of teachers, cannot be avoided forever, they said.
"People will notice it when they walk into our schools and say, 'Why aren't they as clean as they should be? How come the grounds aren't being kept up as we remember them? Why isn't the school being repainted? And the paint is scaling off the eaves,' " said San Diego City Schools superintendent Tom Payzant.
The growth experienced by the 10 largest districts has helped to alleviate some of the budget pains, but it serves only as a temporary remedy.
Schools receive funding from the state based on the number of students a district serves. This year, schools received the same amount of money per student they received last year, despite rising costs for personnel, supplies, insurance and other operational expenses.
"We are fortunate this year to be a growth district," said Rene Townsend, superintendent of Vista Unified. "The ones that aren't growing are the ones which are struggling."
Next year, however, when that North County school district opens two new elementary schools, there will be more elbow room on the campuses but overhead will go up, Townsend said.
And while the state provides the money for building the new schools, the money to maintain them comes out of the district's pocket.
The much-publicized cuts and the hiring of new teachers have sent mixed messages to the public on what is going on in the schools, administrators said. The public hears that schools are in dire need, but then sees no layoffs and wonders whether schools have as many money problems as they say.
"That's a dilemma we have all the time. How do we get that information out so that parents and the community understand what is happening in the public schools?" said Jo Ann Smith, superintendent of Grossmont Union High School District, which hired about 50 new teachers to accommodate more than 650 new students.
As part of its cost-cutting procedures, the district implemented an early-retirement program that attracted 33 teachers and administrators. Grossmont also eliminated one vice-principal position from each of its three high schools and laid off 12 classified personnel in cutting $2.5 million from its $91-million budget.
The mixed message has given the public "a false sense of security" over the condition of public school financing, Smith said.
The deferred maintenance cuts that were easily made this time in most districts will only make matters worse down the line, school district officials said.
"Maintenance and other infrastructure repairs have been put on the back burner, and we will have to pay later for that," said Harry Weinberg, superintendent at the San Diego County Office of Education.
Equally disturbing are the cuts that were made in teacher-training, with school districts having to adjust to the major new California state curriculum frameworks in math, English and social studies. Local districts try to tailor their curricula according to the frameworks, which are developed by teachers throughout the state who decide how to shape future instruction.
In a time when California teachers are being asked to rethink the way they have taught basic subjects and implement new methods and content, teacher training is more important than ever, Weinberg said.
Districts such as Poway Unified and San Diego Unified are also in the midst of extensive educational restructuring, which pushes much responsibility for making decisions about individual school budgets and teaching to the individual school level, theoretically making their districts less top-heavy and more responsive to community needs, Weinberg said.
"We are in an area of restructuring, and that means conferences and staff time," Weinberg said.
The entire budget process has become irksome to Weinberg and others, who are critical of having to hammer out preliminary local budgets in March, while the state budget--which determines local spending levels--is being determined by political struggles between the Legislature and governor as late as July. This puts schools in a guessing game.
"Suppose that you're a superintendent and you think that you will have 300 new youngsters in the fall, but you don't know how much money you will get. Do you plan to hire 10 new teachers or eight? You just have to guess and hope," Weinberg said.
San Diego City Schools superintendent Payzant said schools have always been part of politics at some level, but that since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, much local control has been shifted to Sacramento.
And so while decisions on how to spend money can be made locally, the amount of money granted depends on the results of the Legislature's political budget fray; a process that has been detrimental to the mission of education, Payzant said.
"You're in a major competition for limited resources where people who should be natural allies supporting programs to meet the needs of children, youth and families, are pitted against each other to get their fair share of the limited pie," Payzant said.
"So K-12 education has to be pitted against higher education, and education is pitted against social services and health. And that really doesn't make an awful lot of sense when many of us share a common purpose," he said.