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California Schools and the Budget Crisis

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Imagine trying to plan your budget for next month without knowing what your paycheck will look like. That's the situation California schools find themselves in most years because of the way the state budget is set up. And this year is worse than usual, because the state's facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall.

Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed more than four billion dollars in cuts to schools to help fill the gap. So, what's a school district to do? Marianne Russ examines some of the major challenges with the way California pays for education.

Lunch for Teachers at Da Vinci High School in Davis is a fragrant, group affair in the cramped administration office. The tight-knit school includes a dozen staff members and under 300 students. There's a focus on project-based learning here, where a typical assignment is a mock presidential campaign. You'd never guess from the jovial atmosphere that six of the seven full-time teachers have received pink slips:

Bell: Nowadays they should call it a pink packet. 

Scott Steven Bell teaches world civilization, political studies and drama. He's one of the estimated 18,000 teachers and staffers statewide who received a nasty little surprise in March:

Bell: It was a rather large envelope full of legalese and every thing you needed to know to explain why you're being released. But it's not pink. It is sadly, white.

Joking aside, Bell is like many of the teachers at Da Vinci. Younger. Newer to the district. And therefore one of the first to go when budget cuts come calling. 

Christian Holst teaches English and political studies. He has a baby on the way, and like Bell, received a layoff notice.   He says he and the others are doing their best to stay focused on teaching, but it's tough.

Holst: We're all human. Students know that this is on our minds. Students know that potentially next year the teachers that they know and love might not be here.

State Schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell says the layoff notices do hurt morale. And he says they've historically had another effect:

O’Connell:  Seven or eight years ago when we had a difficult budget and we saw a number of layoff notices, two years later we had 10,000 fewer prospective teachers in our teacher credentialing program. So it becomes a pipeline issue.

O'Connell says right now there aren't enough math, science and special education teachers. 

It's likely that many of the proposed cuts to education won't actually happen next year. That's because Democrats - who control the legislature - have said they won't approve them. But schools still have to react as if they're a reality. Sacramento County School Superintendent Dave Gordon.

Gordon: You have to try to plan your budget when you don't know where you stand in terms of your revenues and you actually in many cases you have to open school, not knowing where you stand with your revenues.

Here's the challenge in a nutshell: Lawmakers are supposed to have a one-year state spending plan ready by July 1. That's what tells schools how much money they have to spend. But on that same day, schools are supposed to have their own two-year spending plans ready. 

Superintendent Gordon says he has to certify each Sacramento county district's budget -- knowing that it's based entirely on projections that are in flux.

Gordon: So, for example, this year we have to look at did the cuts they made line up to be sufficient to meet the cuts required in the Governor's budget as it is now, even thought everybody knows it will change.

So schools are in a sort of limbo until lawmakers pass a spending plan, which they rarely do on-time. Proposals to change the school's fiscal year - or enact a two-year state budget - have been tossed around, but haven't gained any real traction. 

Governor Schwarzenegger is trying again this year to reform the state budget process., and the Finance Department's H.D. Palmer says schools will be better off if the Governor is successful.

Palmer: The governor doesn't believe that students and teachers and principals ought to be holding on for dear life on this roller coaster ride.

The Governor wants to stabilize things by requiring the state to set aside money in good years and allowing mid-year cuts during lean times - like this year. Palmer says that would keep schools from dealing with the possibility of cuts and layoffs during tough economic times. But critics say his plan sets up a list of programs that would always get the axe when revenues fall short.

Outside the classrooms of Da Vinci High School, students gather in small groups around picnic tables. Some eat lunch - others make weekend plans. And many are talking about the layoffs. Senior Jenny Gunnell remembers when she found out about the pink slips - it was the day of the mock presidential campaign project.

Gunnell: The whole project was completely dwarfed by the fact that we had six of our seven teachers who had pushed us to excel taken, are going to be taken from us.

Gunnell and the other students are rallying around their teachers in a real-life civics lesson. They're selling T-shirts and planning a march to raise money to offset the proposed cuts. They're even lobbying their state Assemblywoman. As for teachers Bell and Holst, both say they hope to keep teaching - but come summer, they will dust of their resumes, if necessary.

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