Newport-Mesa could face millions in cuts

COSTA MESA — The Newport-Mesa Unified School District's budget has been slashed by nearly $12 million for the next school year, but other cuts won't be determined until the state budget is approved.

The district's funding for special programs is out $11.8 million, but Newport-Mesa could face an additional $17-million cut and an estimated 20 fewer school days. These possibilities could happen if a state measure for gathering additional revenue isn't approved and Gov. Jerry Brown approves a cuts-only budget, said Acting Supt. Paul Reed.

"Those of us that do so much with so little are about to do everything with nothing," said Reed at the April 26 school board meeting.

Reed, who also serves as the chief business official, said the district will be able to balance its budget for the next two years by dipping into its reserves, but come 2012-13, that may not be the case.

The district has lost $570 in per-student funding for next year since the governor signed a proposal that reduces "basic aid" districts' categorical funding, which are special programs like adult education, class size reduction and home-to-school transportation, Reed said Friday afternoon.

Basic aid districts rely on revenue from local property taxes to fund the mandated per-student amount. A district's property taxes have to meet or exceed the per-student amount to become basic aid.

Districts that aren't basic aid are dubbed "revenue limit" districts, where the local property tax isn't enough to meet the per-student amount, so the state fills the gap.

Revenue limit districts have felt the brunt of the budget cuts, so the state took a "fair share" reduction from basic aid districts so they can share in the pain, said Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Assn.

Newport-Mesa's funding has exceeded the amount revenue limit districts have received per student over the last 12 years and has received about $2,100 more per student this year.

So far, that is what the district knows, Reed said. What could come next depends on what happens in Sacramento.

Trying to plan the district's financial future has been a seven-day-a-week job for Reed, who constantly checks in on budget updates with Sacramento officials, consultants, colleagues and websites.

"There is no downtime trying to figure this out," he said.

If the tax extension measure is approved, it would mean an estimated $100,000 budget deficit for Newport-Mesa. Although the deadline to get the measure on the June ballot has past, Reed said they aren't counting it out.

"We're still assuming, because we don't have anything else to gauge it on," he said. "The Legislature has not acted. They haven't said yes, but they haven't said no, because there hasn't been a vote."

Although the governor made a campaign promise not to raise taxes without voter approval, the tax measure extension could still be enacted, Pratt said.

The Legislature could pass it with a two-thirds vote without a vote of the people, or approve it contingent on voter ratification later, he said.

School districts, though, should prepare for the worst-case scenario, Pratt said.

If the measure doesn't come to fruition, a cuts-only budget would slash an estimated $4.8 billion from the state's schools, he said.

Newport-Mesa's share of those axed billions may be $17 million and the possibility of 20 fewer school days to compensate is being bandied about, Reed said.

"The education system is literally about to implode if they let things go the way they're headed," Reed said.

If it comes to cutting school days, it will be a question of reopening union contracts to negotiate furlough days, Pratt said.

A cuts-only budget would also mean eliminating any librarians, nurses and counselors who have survived layoffs over the last three years, he said.

Across the state, Pratt said districts have increased class sizes "to the breaking point," reduced or eliminated summer school and after-school tutoring, cut high school electives and Advanced Placement courses, and eliminated music and art lessons in elementary schools — all to deal with the $18 billion in cuts and deferrals handed down over the last three years from Sacramento.

"It's just been real bad and the budgets are cut down to the bare bone," Pratt said.

Newport-Mesa's $25 million in cuts have, unlike other districts, maintained the 180-day school year and retained librarians, counselors, art and music programs. Other districts have reduced to 175 school days.

School districts will have a better picture when the governor reveals his May budget revision, expected to be released May 16, officials said.

Waiting for the May Revise is normal, but in the past, it would bring better news, not worse, Reed said.

"If they cut the school system much more, given everything they have cut over the last three years, they are going to have school systems that simply can't operate," Reed said.

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