On Education: Schools have their own fiscal cliff to avoid

You don't need to travel to Washington, D.C., to find a fiscal cliff to throw yourself off. Just take a turn down to Glendale Unified headquarters, where failure by the White House to reach some sort of deficit reduction deal will translate into a loss of $1.4 million in federal funding for local students.

That is on top of a yawning structural deficit that district officials are trying to beat back like burlap-sack-wielding farmers fighting a prairie fire.

“We are still basically $15 million upside down with the structural deficit where our expenditures are exceeding our revenues by $15 million annually,” Supt. Dick Sheehan said during a meeting Tuesday. “We are going to have to make some tough choices going forward.”

To provide some context, school board members in June approved a $167.7-million budget for the current school year. Glendale Unified closed out 2011-12 with an ending fund balance of $48.8 million.

Cost-saving measures have included eliminating assistant principal positions, laying off the district's public information officer and energy conservation manager, while also retooling employee healthcare and dental plans. And staff members have been reassigned, such as returning three high school teacher librarians to the classroom.

More than anything, though, the district is making ends meet by tapping millions of dollars in categorical funds, savings meant for things like special education and maintenance. The state loosened restrictions on such “solvency transfers” amid the economic crisis.

Plans for next year include increasing the student-teacher ratio for kindergarten through third grade to 30 to 1 from the current 24 to 1. Another way to read that: teacher layoffs.

According to the district, as many as 75 elementary teachers and 50 secondary teachers could receive layoff notices in March. Early retirement incentives are also on the table.

But what about Proposition 30, that California tax initiative that voters so generously approved in November? It certainly served a purpose, staving off a loss of an additional $12 million for Glendale Unified. Still, our cliff remains in front of us, if a little less precipitous.

During an interview with state Sen. Carol Liu in September, she assured me that the state had hit bottom, and that the budget would soon show signs of recovery.

But even if California does post a revenue surplus starting in 2014, as the state Legislative Analyst's Office recently projected, it could be years until schools see full funding restored.

More important than getting the dollars back is applying them wisely. Crisis creates opportunity, and it is time to restructure a rigid, top-down education finance system that leaves district administrators with virtually no control over how they invest their own money.

At one point, California K-12 education had more than 80 categorical funds that dictated spending for specific uses.

And you thought balancing your checkbook was hard.

There are 6 million students in California public schools with a dizzying variety of needs. A funding formula for the San Rafael School District is not the funding formula needed at Glendale Unified. State officials need to show more confidence in their local counterparts to respond to students and build flexibility into how education dollars are used.

Only then can we hope to back away from the edge.

MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She may be reached at megan.oneil.06@gmail.com.

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