Schools face more budget trouble

The record 100-day wait for the state budget is over, but concerns still remain for school districts across California, including La Cañada Unified.

California school districts were required to budget for the financial year in June, but since the Legislature submitted its budget three months late, districts were forced to base their plans on assumptions of how many dollars they might receive from the state.

"Think of an airplane that takes off, and once it's in the air, it finds out how much fuel it has," La Cañada Supt. Jim Stratton said at a PTA meeting at Palm Crest Elementary last week. "Then think about being notified mid-flight that some of the fuel is going to be drained from your plane. This is essentially what happens with the school district when they're forced to plan their budget and begin the school year without knowing how much money they have to work with."

Although the budget has finally landed, the possibility of mid-year cuts to public education still loom over the heads of California's school districts.

"I don't think we are finished yet," said Scott Tracy, vice president of the La Cañada school board. "I think this [state] budget resolves nothing."

Stratton said he was pleased to see that public education is receiving more funds than originally thought (although it's still well below the statutory amount), but he fears the district is not in the clear.

Both Tracy and Stratton said that the problem with the new state budget is that the decisions on how to close California's $19-million budget deficit were essentially deferred until the next session, which begins in January. The state budget is built on the assumption that taxpayer revenue and federal funds will shrink the deficit, even though neither be relied upon to do so.

California's next governor could be left to pick up the pieces if things don't go as hoped, Stratton said.

"People are predicting that once the new governor comes into office, he or she may need to do mid-year cuts because this budget is relying on funding or factors that may not be there," he said.

Which budget adjustments are made will depend largely on who is elected governor, since each candidate can be expected to act in different ways.

"We are being told to use caution, because the real question is if the state will continue to cut and create giant gaps in our budget," Tracy said.

The budget raises alarms for California's institutions of higher learning, as well.

Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, said in a news release after the budget was passed that he was pleased to see that the Legislature had designated an additional $126 million for California's community colleges in the long term. But he remained concerned over the budget's short-term implications.

The extra money for community colleges will help the public institutions serve more students as hundreds of thousands of people flock back to school during the recession to obtain new or updated job skills. Scott, however, said he was disappointed to see $189 million of the promised funds were being deferred until next year.

"This action tends to undermine the funding increases by obligating our system to expand this year, but does not provide colleges with the resources to do so until next year," Scott said.

Community colleges are serving roughly 200,000 students for which they aren't receiving state funds. The state's $126 million growth augmentation will fund about 60,000 of the 200,000 unfunded students.

"The enrollment funding will help our colleges respond to the tremendous demand they are experiencing, but the deferral still puts us in a tough spot," Scott said. "Our credit card is getting pretty heavy, here."

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