Apodaca: Schools have a tough road ahead

As we head into the dog days of summer, thoughts of pressing school matters are probably far from the minds of students and their families.

Not so for officials of Newport-Mesa Unified School District, who continue to wrestle with the very real possibility that they'll be forced to make further cuts to an already emaciated budget.

At the school board meeting Tuesday, Deputy Supt. and Chief Business Official Paul Reed presented the tentative budget for the upcoming school year, which represents a best-guess scenario before the final budget is adopted at the end of August. The good news — if one can call it that — is that through dipping into its $25-million reserve fund and borrowing additional money, the district can avoid more cuts in the upcoming school year.

In other words, we're cracking open our piggy bank — which we're lucky to have, by the way — to make up the difference between what we spend and what we take in.

And we're borrowing money because what we are entitled to take in from the state isn't really what we get, at least not right away. It's the rough equivalent of hitting up Aunt Mildred for a loan until the paycheck that's stuck in the mail finally arrives.

If this arcane financing scheme sounds bad — "horrendous" is how Reed characterizes the overall situation — consider that Newport-Mesa is in relatively good shape in a state where one in seven districts can't pay its bills. That we're better off than most is thanks largely to some prudent planning undertaken by the district in years past — remember the piggy bank? — which has cushioned us from some of the more disastrous options being considered elsewhere.

Still, even relatively good is pretty rotten.

The morning after the board meeting, Reed, who until Thursday was also acting superintendent, met me for coffee to further explain the school funding mess that has districts throughout the state on tenterhooks.

District revenues are expected to total $222.1 million in the next school year, down from $240 million in 2008. But despite $25 million in cuts over the past three years, the district will still spend more than $231 million. That's a shortfall of more than $9 million.

Absent some help on the revenue side, the district can only keep that hole plugged for so long. Reed said that this time next year, we could very well be talking about ways to trim spending further.

"We think it will be a long hard slog the next few years," he said.

Reed discussed the sad state of affairs with the world-weariness of a veteran who is trying mightily to keep the district running smoothly under the most trying conditions. He has done an admirable job in the past, several difficult months, during which he has filled in for Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard, who has been on paid leave while awaiting trial on charges of misappropriating funds in his previous job as Beverly Hills' schools chief.

The district announced this week that Hubbard would return to work Tuesday. His trial is set for mid-August.

But whoever heads the district in the months and years ahead, one thing is certain: He'd better have a high tolerance for stress, because there's a bumpy ride ahead.

The state budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday included a forecast of a previously unanticipated $4 billion in additional revenue. If that sunny scenario fails to materialize, K-12 schools statewide will receive even less money, possibly leading to a reduction in the number of school days.

As soon as January, Newport-Mesa officials could be talking about another round of belt-tightening, and some excruciating decisions might lie ahead.

Will they raid the piggy bank again? Should they squeeze more kids into classrooms? Do they curtail programs, and if so, which ones: bus service, counseling, sports? Will they be forced to negotiate with employees for a shorter school year? Do they close schools?

Does this sound alarmist? Perhaps. The economy could bounce back faster and stronger than expected, replenishing the revenue streams that feed our schools. The worst-case scenario could be avoided, and Newport-Mesa could forge ahead in its depleted but still viable condition.

But that would only be a temporary reprieve. The long-term problems will remain, namely our dysfunctional system of governance in California and the senseless way we fund our public schools, which makes them highly vulnerable to economic vicissitudes.

Piggy banks and Aunt Mildred can't save us forever. We need to let our elected officials know loud and clear that we're ready to tear down the house of cards that is fast collapsing on our once-vaunted public schools.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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