Schools caught between surge, cuts

DOWNTOWN — An expected surge in federal stimulus money, combined with the prospect of limiting state cuts, may leave the Glendale and Burbank unified school districts in a delicate dance between program expansion and contraction.

The federal stimulus package is expected to offer the districts a combined total of about $20 million over two years for additional educational programs in specific areas, like special education, but a plan currently being shopped through the Legislature calls for cuts that could force layoffs or reductions to other offerings.

Glendale Unified officials will discuss the implications of the state and federal plans during tonight’s Board of Education meeting, and the Burbank Unified Board of Education will hold a special meeting today on the same topic.

Officials from both districts do not know exactly how much money they will get from the stimulus package, but the funds will be limited for use on supplementary programs at schools with high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or for students with special needs.

While the stimulus money will help to expand some services, it won’t help districts compensate for midyear state funding reductions, which have not been decided but could leave officials scrambling to meet their payment obligations, they said.

“Until we see the final state budget, we don’t know if they are going to follow the federal intent to supplement and not supplant,” Glendale Unified Vice President Mary Boger said. “Too often in the past we’ve gotten federal funds and the state has simply said, ‘Oh. Well, you’ve gotten the money from them, so you don’t need it from us.’”

The state cuts are expected to come from the Legislature’s latest budget plan.

Legislators were deadlocked over the weekend and through Monday in discussions about a new budget plan, remaining in the state Capitol overnight Saturday to drum up support for a combination of tax increases and budget cuts to close the state’s $41-billion budget gap by mid 2010, according to legislative sources.

Legislative leaders had not yet secured the final Republican vote needed for the plan to pass by a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the Assembly, as of press time Monday.

The plan would slash $6.4 billion from the budget for education, but would make up for most of the reduction with a mix of payment deferrals and funding reallocations from other programs, according to an outline of the proposal.

School districts would be left to grapple with a statewide net cut of about $1.9 billion to their general budgets, with less than five months to go before the school year ends.

Glendale Unified officials had projected that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent budget proposal, which called for a net cut of about $2 billion to eduction, would have left them with a shortfall of about $8 million this year.

Schwarzenegger’s plan also included key flexibility measures that would have allowed districts to overcome the reductions without taking drastic steps, like laying off staff or shortening the school year, officials have said.

The plan currently facing the Legislature would likewise give school districts some freedom to use money from state grants currently restricted for specific purposes, like textbooks or art supplies, in order to plug the holes left in their budgets by the cuts, according to the proposal.

But it would exclude some grants from being raided to address shortfalls. Among them are kindergarten-through-third-grade class-size reduction programs, which help fund additional teaching positions to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio in those grades.

Glendale Unified Supt. Michael Escalante mentioned the class-size reduction program as a possible source of funding during a Feb. 3 board meeting.

The ratio, he said at the time, could be increased from 20 to 1 in primary grades to as high as 24 to 1, a move that could prevent the district from taking drastic steps to meet its financial obligations.

A similar approach might also work for Burbank Unified, Supt. Gregory Bowman said, although it was still too early to tell which options might or might not be available to officials because no budget plan had been approved and details were uncertain, he said.

One perk of the federal stimulus money might also be at risk, Bowman said.

Federal funds for special education could allow the district to spend less of its resources on those programs, instead reallocating them to meet other obligations, but that would be possible only with consistent support from the state for special-education programs, he said.

In the past, Bowman said, school districts have not been so lucky.

“When the federal government has increased that amount, then the state has reduced — by the same amount to the school district — the amount of support for special education,” he said.


 ZAIN SHAUK covers education. He may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at zain.shauk@latimes.com.

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