Apodaca: Optimism and the state budget

Gov. Jerry Brown has gone to great pains lately to inject a large dose of an unfamiliar characteristic — optimism — into discussions about state finances.

His surprise announcement that California is now operating in the black, and that schools would benefit from the firmer financial footing, is certainly welcome news for hard-pressed districts throughout the state, including our own Newport-Mesa Unified.

Brown's upbeat assessment is based on an unexpected increase in tax receipts last year in conjunction with spending cuts made over the past two years. What's more, new revenue is beginning to flow in from Proposition 30, the governor's tax increase measure that won voter approval in November.

So why isn't the long-put-upon education community dancing in the streets?

Possibly because that would be like asking a mugging victim to do a jig when he's lying in a hospital bed with his head bandaged. The worst might be over, but a full recovery is still a long way off, and some injuries could last a lifetime.

School officials know full well that our public education system is far from anything approximating good health; the funding picture remains fluid, complex and uncertain, and Brown's proposed budget, which would increase K-12 school spending by $2.7 billion, is just that — a proposal that is only the starting point for negotiations.

The budget plan also calls for adding about $250 million each to the University of California and Cal State systems. As a result, universities like UC Irvine wouldn't be forced to raise tuitions this fall, although some fees likely would still increase.

But as Paul Reed, NMUSD's deputy superintendent and chief business official, pointed out, "All we have thus far is what the governor has proposed." The final budget will be the result of hot debate and unhappy compromise; a lot can happen between now and July, when the next fiscal year begins.

So far there isn't even agreement on the numbers that will form the basis of negotiations. The Legislature's top financial analyst, while concurring that the fiscal picture has brightened, projects a small budget deficit will remain this year.

And there will certainly be opposition to increased spending without offsetting cuts elsewhere, and disagreement about how money should be directed to schools. Critics will argue that Brown's plan is premature and risky, and could leave the state vulnerable to another economic downturn. Even many Brown supporters urge caution.

Questions have also been raised about Brown's plan to use all of the money raised from Proposition 39 — the ballot measure passed in November that closes corporate loopholes — on energy efficiency programs in schools. That amount is being counted as part of the $2.7 billion in new K-12 funding, even though it can't be used for general education purposes.

The bipartisan legislative analyst said the move would actually result in $190 million less for schools because the energy money "crowds out" other funds that would have gone directly to classrooms.

Did I mention that this is complicated?

A ton of controversy will also undoubtedly surround Brown's plan to shift more state education dollars toward districts with higher proportions of low-income and non-English-speaking students — what Reed calls a "Robin Hood strategy." There could also be discord over the governor's push to eliminate many requirements dictating how districts spend state money because it could jeopardize some popular programs.

For so-called basic aid districts like Newport-Mesa, which are locally funded through property taxes, the good news comes in a rather backward fashion. NMUSD wouldn't expect to receive new state money, but under Brown's budget the district wouldn't have to forfeit property tax revenue that exceeds a set formula, something it's been subject to in years past.

"That, then, means that while we can expect very little from Sacramento, we can rely on the recovery of property values in Newport-Mesa," Reed said. "We can make that work."

Still, it's all conjecture at this point, and Reed remains circumspect. He has on many occasions warned the school board that the district might not be done cutting.

Perhaps the most important reality check is the undeniable fact that balanced checkbook or not, California is still deeply in debt and our education system is still in serious trouble. The pension debacle remains unresolved — and growing by the day — and absent meaningful structural reform in the way we fund education, our schools will continue to be victimized by swings in the economy.

That's not to say that the situation for our schools isn't better now than it was a year, or even a few months, ago. If not for recent events, we could have been, quite literally, contemplating how to keep the doors open at some schools.

But it's hardly the time for unbridled joy, either. If we're to buy into the governor's optimism, let it be the cautious and sensible kind. Public education in California needs a whole lot of repair work to recover from the devastating damage that's been inflicted for a very long time.

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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