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California Gov. Jerry Brown announced so-called trigger cuts for state schools - what does that mean for San Diego Unified School District?

December 14, 2011 1:33 p.m.

Guests

John Lee Evans Ph.D., President, San Diego Unified School Board

Kyla Calvert, KPBS Education Reporter

Related Story: What Gov. Brown's Mid-Year Budget Cuts Mean For San Diego Schools

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, December 14th. Our top story on Midday Edition, as expected, a slump in projected state revenues triggered mid-year budget cuts in California. Much of the burden fell on education, but the budget ax fell more gently than expected on San Diego's largest school district. We'll get a rundown on how mid-year budget cuts affect San Diego schools and universities from my guests, doctor John Lee Evans is president of the San Diego unified district School Board. John Evans, welcome to the program.

EVANS: Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Kyla Calvert is KPBS education reporter.

CALVERT: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You were elected to the board by the board to be president only last night. And that is quite a job, considering the challenges facing the district, wouldn't you say?

EVANS: It definitely is. I came on the board in 2008. And every year, the budget challenge has gotten bigger and bigger.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the cuts then. San Diego unified was bracing for a cut of up to $30 million. But what happened?

EVANS: Well, we found out that with preliminary estimates, we were looking at about the 7 to $8 million range for cuts in the middle of the year. And this is besides all the huge budget shortfall we're facing for the next school year.

CAVANAUGH: So what does that mean to the district? How will you cut back to make up this $7 million in cuts?

EVANS: Are, we have enough in reserves. We've been careful fiscally to make sure we can maintain the district for situations like that. So we'll be using our reserves, it also involves using some money from the sale of property and some other cutbacks that we can make in the middle of the year. The real issue is what's gonna happen for the next school year. We don't even know if by not doing the mid-year cuts at a greater level if they're just going to tack that onto the (for next year.

CAVANAUGH: The board had suggested big mid-year cuts into insolvency. Is that threat now off the table?

EVANS: Even before the announcement, the threat of insolvency was off the table. We decided to prepare for the worst case scenario and came up with a scenario which was horrible and involved a lot of layoffs and sacrifice, but we had decided we were gonna do whatever it takes to make sure that the San Diego school district would remain solvent because we want to maintain control of our schools.

CAVANAUGH: Mr. Evans, we heard that the briggest chunk of the cuts that were made mid-year to education, at least K-12, are aimed at school transportation. How is San Diego unified going to absorb that kind of a challenge?

EVANS: In the last year or two, we've made major cuts in transportation. Most the transition that remains is man dated. It's special education, and some other federal laws that require us to transport those students. So that will not be cut back. And we will be using money from our reserves to fund that for the remainder of the year.

CAVANAUGH: Kyla Calvert, school transportation cuts are a big part of these mid-year cuts. How does that hurt some of the smaller districts, though, in San Diego? Some of the more rural districts?

CALVERT: Some of those superintendents actually knot together at the county office of education this morning to talk about that exactly. And I talked with the superintendent of the Julian union elementary school district, and he was saying that while the $80 million cut to K-12 education translates to about 11 to $12 per student across the state for all school districts, the transportation funding is sort of pooled more heavily in rural districts like Julian because it's sort of based more on wear and tear and distance their buses are traveling. He was saying to me that on top of that 11 or $12 per student that all districts are going to see, he's looking at about $155 per student for the rest of this year for transportation funding. Because so many of their students arrive at school by bus, it's over 600 square miles, their district, they don't have the option of reducing transportation because the children don't have any other way to get to school. Also the percentage of students in that district that qualify for free and reduced price lunch is about 60%. And those families are already struggling. They don't have the resources to drive the students the great distances to get to school.

CAVANAUGH: So John Evans, I read yesterday that the Los Angeles unified school district superintendent says that district is thinking about suing the state to block those cuts to transportation. But it sounds as if you feel as you can't make the cuts anyway, but you've got it covered by reserve funds, is that it?

EVANS: Right, we can cover it for now. But we have to look at next year. And one of the things we're doing is mounting an effort to get cooperation for all the stake holder groups for next year. I'm going to have a press conference tomorrow with all the superintendent and all the union leaders talking about how we're going to confront this crisis for next year. We've got great things going on in our schools. We recently found out we scored very well on national testing analysis, so we really want to get the word out that San Diego schools are worth investing in, and really get E got the public and the legislator behind this.

CAVANAUGH: Would there ever come a time when upping the School Board would think about suing the state for more funds or to block a proposed cut?

EVANS: Well, that's actually -- has been going on through the California School Board association, and other organizations that we have participated in. There have been violations of proposition 98 and other measures that have not really been fulfilled. The basic man date in the California constitution for a free universal public education is not being met. But those thing, obviously, take a long time in the Courts. And the state has to come up with the money somehow.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Kyla, just as San Diego unified did not get the ax quite as hard as they thought they'd they would, cuts to education are just as bad as expected.

CALVERT: Each of the public university systems will lose $100 million in January. SDSU, that translates to about $7.8 million. And someone in their media relations office was telling me that the university plan forward that already because that $100 million was part of sort of the first of three tiers of cuts from the state. And so the education -- the K-12 education cuts came from the second tier, the more dramatic cuts. So SDSU budget forward that cut, so they'll be using some reserve money to cover that loss. And then at UCSD, actually, the UC system in general is not taking the January funding loss from campuses. It's being handled at the system-wide level. So one of their representatives was telling me that they're basically -- it sounded to me like just sort of putting -- moving money around in their books to sort of tide them over until the end of this fiscal year, and sort of swapping money between different accounts to get different interest rates and pulling money out of funds that are reserved for, like, employee health costs and things like that, where they can sort of borrow from that for the time being with the hopes that this funding reduction won't be permanent. That it won't be a permanent low. That there will be additional funding for universities in the fall, which Governor Brown said when his budget proposal comes out in January, it'll include additional cuts to the same services that are already being cut. So I don't know how realistic it is to think that this isn't a new low, and that it might not even get lower.

CAVANAUGH: Some creative accounting going on at at university of California system. CSU trustees just enacted a tuition hike, an extremely controversial one. That was scheduled to go into effect regardless of these mid-year budget cuts; is that right?

CALVERT: That's right. And that'll be in effect in the fall. That's for the next fiscal year. And the mid-year cuts also which had a $10 per unit fee increase per community college students. So in their most aren't meeting, the university of California reaments decided to not further increase tuition. But the cost of higher education in California has gone up dramatically in the last couple of years. I think community college students were paying $26 a credit just a couple years ago. Now they'll be paying $46 a credit. The cost of tuition at SDSU has increased -- I mean, has come close to doubling in the last 5 or 6 years. So it's getting to the point now where students will be paying more into the higher education system in California than the state is.

CAVANAUGH: Now, John Evans over at San Diego unified school district, even though the mid-year cuts were less than expected, as you've indicated, San Diego unified still faces a huge deficit next year. Give us an idea of what you're expecting.

EVANS: Well, we're looking at about $92 million shortfall for the following year. And that translates into -- almost 1,000 employees, basically, because that's really the only other place to cut it at this point. We've cut out of everything else. So that really is why it's going to be so important to cooperate with our employee groups in terms of coming up with some sort of alternative to that, in terms of some type of concessions, whether it's furlough days, postponing pay increases, and that type of thing. We really have to have all of those things taken care of. At a minimum, just to solve this budget problem we're facing.

CAVANAUGH: And you were talking about a press conference that you're proposing to hold tomorrow.

EVANS: Right.

CAVANAUGH: When you talk about cooperation from your employee group, you're talking about union concessions, right?

EVANS: Right, right.

CAVANAUGH: And if my understanding is correct, the teachers' union is expecting well-negotiated pay rise hikes in the coming year; is that right?

EVANS: Well, we had negotiated a pay increase, but it was based on the cutbacks during the last couple years, so overthe next couple years we're going to make up the money they lost. That's going to be extremely difficult to do. We can't enter into serious discussions with that until after the governor releases his budget in January. When you don't have real numbers to work with, it's hard to negotiate on something like that. But we have had statements from union leaders that they are not going to stand by and let the district sink. And we really believe that we're going to be able to find a way to work together on this to save the educational programs that we all want.

CAVANAUGH: And I understand that the five unpaid days that teachers had been taking for the last couple years, they're set to expire next year too, right?

EVANS: Right. It was a 2-year agreement for that. That's another possibility we can look at in term it is of extending that. That saves quite a few millions of dollars, and postponing pay increases, and looking at other alternatives. We recently had a deal made with the unions. They came up with some ideas how we could save some money right now in terms of our healthcare benefits, where they're moving some of their employees to less costry plans with a little incentive where the districts can save quite a bit of money on that too. Sothere is this spirit of cooperation that we're starting to see. And we're getting away from the polarization that has been there.

CAVANAUGH: You say you can't start with any hard numbers until you see the governor's budget in January. However, doesn't the district have to submit a preliminary budget to the county pretty soon?

EVANS: Oh, we are actually submitting it by today or tomorrow. We approved it on Tuesday night, a preliminary budget. It is a balanced budget. It's a horrible budget because it does include 700 some layoffs, and about $90 million of cuts. We're not allowed to put anything on their potential. It's the worst case snare Joe. It's a crazy budgeting system, because we're required to come up with a balanced budget before they tell us how much they're going to give us. So it's a worst case scenario, then and there we work from there.

CAVANAUGH: Governor Brown announced that he wants to take a tax increase plan directly to the voters. That information came out a week or so ago. Would most of that money raised go toward education?

CALVERT: I think it's all specifically for education. It's about $7 billion, or nearly $7 billion for education. It's a half% sales tax increase which will be temporary, and a 2% -- I believe it's a 2% income tax increase on people earning over 500 Thurs. A year, and I saw something about a pole of likely voters that came out earlier this week that said about 60% of likely voters said they supported that plan because one, it includes sort of the very popular idea of taxing the wealthy, which we sort of hear everywhere right now. Plus it designates the funds for education, which is something that are voters in general have been shown to support. And generally voters don't have a lot of taste for just a general tax increase because they don't really trust the state to spend the money well. But they do support specifically spending on education.

CAVANAUGH: And has the School Board come out one way or another on the governor's proposed initiative?

EVANS: Not yet. And there are some other initiatives that may be coming out. But I think this is a really hopeful step because for once, he's going to be able to get it straight to the voters. He tried to get the legislature to take it to the voters last year, and they didn't approve that. I think that's the reason they didn't institute the mid-year cuts was because of the public reaction to cuts in education. But they're not solving the revenue problem right now, and that's what they're going to have to do this type of initiative. And I'm confident that the public is going to be supportive of funding education am.

CAVANAUGH: Well, other tell you, we will wait to hear what you have to say at the news conference, and I know KPBS will be reporting on it. I've been speaking with John Lee Evans, newly elected president of the San Diego unified School Board, and KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert. Thank you both.

CALVERT: Thank you.

EVANS: Thank you, Maureen.