Districts face worst-case scenarios

Budget projections at public school districts, already a guessing game, were scrambled once again this week following Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to suspended negotiations with Republican legislators. The breakdown in negotiations, which would have provided for a June referendum to allow California voters to decide whether to extending current tax rates, transformed the districts’ worst-case scenarios into impending reality.

With state funding cuts potentially reaching twice the totals suggested by earlier projections when June tax extensions were still possible, school officials say they are preparing for drastic changes in the way they approach public education.

Gary Mortimer, a financial consultant with Burbank Unified, said the change could severely challenge educators.

“Burbank has been able to be really responsive to the needs of children and offer a very good education,” said Mortimer, himself a product of Burbank schools. “I think with the budget cuts looming like they could, it is going to have an effect on the district’s ability to maintain a high level of education.”

Burbank and Glendale school officials have been playing budgetary hopscotch for months, cutting millions of dollars in expenditures in an effort to balance finances while remaining uncertain about where state funding levels will land.

And with the tax extension apparently off the table until the November election — if it at all — district officials said they could see 2011-12 state funding reduced by as much as $800 a student, twice that of earlier projections. Current per-student funding is approximately $5200 annually. In Burbank, the change would translate to about $11 million in lost revenue, while in Glendale, the loss would total $20 million.

“There are some people who say it is going to get to that level,” said Eva Lueck, chief financial and business officer with Glendale Unified. “Other people are saying it will come in around $500 to $600 [per student].

“We are truly not sure. At this point and time, there is not a lot for us to do. We can consider what we have and make lists, but we really need information to know what our target is.”

Officials said they will spend the next several weeks collecting data and waiting for cues from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office and from School Services of California, a private firm that advises the state on education issues.

“If we get hit with an $800 [reduction], I think we can possibly sustain that for maybe a year,” Glendale Unified Supt. Dick Sheehan said. “Beyond that, you are looking at massive cuts.”

Burbank Unified officials announced a two-year solvency plan in January meant to address a $7-million deficit accrued during the past two years, as well as the $5.1 million in cuts the district was anticipating come July 1. The cost-cutting measures include reducing utility, legal and consulting expenses, as well as district-funded vehicle and travel costs. Renegotiating teacher contracts also is a major component.

The district will proceed with the strategy regardless of what happens with the special election, said Burbank Unified Supt. Stan Carrizosa. In the meantime, district officials will continue to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento.

“We would like the legislation to find a way to give Californians the opportunity to vote on the sales tax extension,” Carrizosa said.

Similarly, Glendale Unified has reduced expenditures by $18.3 million this year, largely through staffing reductions and increasing employee contributions to health care costs.

The uncertainly of a tax extension has made the passage of Measure S — a $270-million school bond that goes before voters on Tuesday — all the more critical to the fiscal stability of Glendale Unified, Sheehan said.

“If Measure S were not to pass and we get hit with $800 cuts, the class sizes are going to be explode,” Sheehan said. “It is very serious. I hope people are aware of the magnitude of the [situation].”


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