Guest Column: Planning for a worst-case budget

And so here we go again. Despite public educators’ hope that we might have more certainty regarding this year’s state budget cycle, it appears that we won’t have a clear idea about our 2011-12 funding level until sometime this summer at the earliest.

The governor has pledged to present a firm proposal by Monday, May 16, which is the statutory date for the May Revision. No matter what he announces, however, there will be no definite sense of a funding amount for schools until a formal budget enactment by the Legislature — and maybe beyond that.

For planning purposes, then, we are working with three different scenarios. The most optimistic is the “flat funding” scenario. Under this option, California schools would be funded again next year at the level specified in the 2010-11 budget signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in October 2010. Adjusting for deficit variables, this would actually result in about $19 less per student in 2011-12 than the current year but would still be the best possible deal for K-12 education. The $19 scenario, however, was based on Governor Brown’s ability to get his tax extension proposal on a June ballot and on the assumption that the proposal would pass.
With the governor’s inability to secure the necessary opposition party votes to place tax extensions on the ballot, this option is essentially off the table. There is some speculation that legislators could agree on a deal to extend the sales, income and vehicle taxes for a few months and to put increases beyond that on a November ballot, but this seems unlikely.

Scenario number two results from the loss of revenue from the governor’s unrealized tax extensions. This projection reduces Revenue Limit funding by approximately $349 per student (comprised of the $19 loss under the “flat funding” option and an additional $330 per student associated with the failure of the tax extension proposal).

The third scenario is a worst-case assumption that addresses the loss of the tax revenue and the lingering $12 billion or so budget deficit at the state level which remains after the $12.5 billion in cuts already made by the governor. This option returns us to the May revision level of May 2010 and reduces per-student Revenue Limit funding in 2011-12 by about $614. A variation of this scenario, called the “all cuts budget,” goes further and positions K-12 education to take about $5 billion in the ongoing reductions needed and to receive upwards of $850 per student less in funding.

How the Legislature and governor will sort things out is anybody’s guess. Some observers see a deal still possible on a temporary tax extension and a November ballot proposal, although the timeline is running out for a measure to qualify with the required title and summary submission. Others think the governor is serious about not submitting an unbalanced budget and therefore an all-cuts budget is his only alternative. Still others think the Legislature and governor could agree on a “creative budget” like we have seen in the past that includes borrowing, fund shifts and revenue assumptions that essentially kick the problem down the road for another year.

So how are we responding in La Cañada? We are planning for a worst case, minus-$614-per-student budget so that we are not caught unprepared by any mid-summer surprises. This scenario results in the non-rehiring of several temporary teaching positions and teaching positions vacated through retirements; increased class sizes at every level K-12; and reductions in counseling, security, technology support, clerical support and district maintenance services.

If a combination of one of the more optimistic state budget scenarios and a successful resolution to our community task force’s $6 million fund raising campaign strengthens our funding picture, we will be positioned this summer to bring back staff, restore programs and either maintain or reduce current class sizes. That is why it is so important to support the “Our Schools, Our Future” task force campaign’s request that each family donate $2500 through the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation (www.lcfef.org). By contributing, you are able to help La Cañada schools maintain excellence in the wake of ongoing fiscal cuts and uncertainty from Sacramento.

JAMES STRATTON is superintendent of the La Cañada Unified School District through this school year, after which he will retire. He can be reached via email at jstratton@lcusd.net.

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