School Official Offers Ways to Cut Budget Pain

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to cushion expected state budget cuts, the head of the state school superintendents association is proposing to lawmakers 20 ways to minimize the effect on students, all of which would require legislation.

The detailed recommendations -- drafted by Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming, president of California City School Superintendents -- include often-suggested ideas such as deferring textbook purchases and tapping reserves, and more unusual steps such as charging students to participate in extracurricular activities.

The school board of Fleming's south Orange County district, the state's 13th-largest, endorsed his proposals Thursday night, hours before Gov. Gray Davis was to unveil plans to cope with a budget shortfall estimated at $34 billion.

Education and legislative analysts said that kind of district-level advocacy will help lawmakers make the best decisions in the face of expected deep cuts in state funding.

Relaxing regulations and guidelines amid the financial crisis will help keep the effects from the classroom as much as possible, Fleming said.

"Simply deferring some of those requirements until better times is completely painless," he said. "It is conceivable that we could get out of this crisis without any student feeling it."

Fleming will travel Tuesday to Sacramento to discuss his ideas with area lawmakers.

The superintendent's propositions are an early salvo suggesting what other districts might advocate to blunt the effect of proposed cutbacks, said Robert Manwaring, K-12 education director in the state's legislative analyst office. He said lawmakers have indicated they would be receptive to such suggestions.

"We're trying to come up with alternatives and do exactly what this superintendent has done," Manwaring said. "I think everyone understands we've got to give districts flexibility to change how they spend their money when they will be getting so much less."

Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine) said legislators have been increasingly open to ways to lessen the impact of the budget cuts on children. "If they don't say anything, the California Teachers Assn. becomes the sole spokesperson for parents, teachers, kids, everybody. There are a lot of other viewpoints out there," he said. "Capistrano is dealing with this in a very pragmatic and constructive way, saying, 'We understand there's a budget problem, and we want to show you how we could get by with less money.' "

Fleming's suggestions include temporary measures such as permitting districts to dip into their required maintenance and economic-crisis reserves.

"That money is collecting dust while we're having that rainy day it's saved for," said Fleming, whose district is required to keep 3% of its $305-million budget in each reserve.

A member of the districtwide Parent Teacher Student Assn. said she doesn't think that using the reserves sets a dangerous precedent.

"The reserves are there for hard times," said Anne Thacher, executive vice president. "Our board of trustees is not going to use it unless they absolutely have to."

What Fleming called "peripheral school activities" such as athletics and band need to start supporting themselves through student fees, with districts obligated to support those who otherwise couldn't afford to participate, he said.

Although he acknowledged that such measures are likely to anger parents, he said people have to realize that most districts have few other places they can save money.

"It's difficult to justify spending all that we do on football, cheerleading and water polo when it means we don't have enough money for what's going on in the classroom," he said.

Thacher said the board would have to listen if district parents protested.

"Given the hard financial times everyone is in, we have to be careful and make sure that these charges are not burdensome," she said.

Fleming also asked that lawmakers allow districts to contract with outside companies. For example, privatizing bus service could slash Capistrano Unified's transportation cost by at least $4 million.

Backlash from teachers, parents and unions would make Fleming's suggestions difficult to pass, Manwaring said.

"There is a potential loser in [each] of these proposals, and with that loser comes an advocacy group," he said. "It's definitely an uphill battle."

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