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Local School Districts Struggling Financially

Audio

Aired 7/2/10

Local schools have been hit hard by the state budget crisis, and the nation's economic downturn. We discuss how the San Diego Unified School District cut its budget by $100 million, and why four other local districts are worried they might not be able to pay their bills for the next two years.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Tough times for the state mean tough times for schools since it’s the state that supports public schools. And school districts are the state’s number one Constitutional obligation, and a growing number of them are in financial trouble. So, David, San Diego Unified slashed its budget by $135 million. How severely have programs and services been cut? What does this mean to the kids?

DAVID KING (Founder/Editor, sandiegonewsroom.com): It means there’s fewer jobs for teachers. The school budget is 80% personnel so the only way you can cut is you cut teachers, and you’re going to have – you either cut the number of teachers or you cut the number of days, and they’ve had to do both. There’s other benefits that they’ve had to cut as well, like busing and that sort of thing, support staff. But it’s basically a personnel management issue so you’re either going to have to lay off teachers or as San Diego Unified had to do, they shortened the school year by one week.

PENNER: But that doesn’t sound as though it’s going to be enough.

KING: It’s not going away. It’s…

PENNER: Apparently there’s much more to be cut for next year.

KING: Absolutely, and it’s not going away. And there’s 42 different school districts within San Diego County. Four of them are on this financial watch list. The 38 are just making rosy predictions. They know something the rest of the state doesn’t know. It’s a statewide problem. How can any school district say when 80% of their money is coming from the State of California and the State of California is on the ropes financially that they’ve got projections three years out that they’re not in trouble? They’re all in trouble.

PENNER: Well, that’s an interesting point because educators, John, are calling on state legislatures to provide adequate funding for the schools. But as we’ve already said, in an economy where the revenues from income and property taxes and sales taxes have plummeted, how is that possible?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, that’s the $64,000 question because K-thru-12 is the education element that’s targeted in this round of budget cuts with this $19 billion deficit and schools have been just raped in every way they possibly could be. And at the same time, the state has a Constitutional obligation, the school boards have a Constitutional obligation by law to provide an education, and we’re just going to see more cuts taking place. I mean, this issue now with the federal money is a question of can we use federal dollars? Well, you know, it’s a very old story. If the dollars are earmarked for something particular, they can’t just be put all over the place. And we’re going to see people in desperation using funds that aren’t authorized for projects to try to save jobs and it’s going to only accelerate.

PENNER: But there is another possibility, Ricky, both the South Bay Union School District and San Diego Unified are talking about asking voters to approve flat fee parcel taxes to help the schools. Now, what would get two-thirds of the voters to tax themselves?

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, Gloria, just judging by your callers today, I don’t think anything…

WARREN: No.

YOUNG: …would get your – would get voters to approve tax increases. I mean, people support schools but, you know, the last couple of parcel taxes I’ve seen here have not done very well. I did want to mention one other dynamic going on as we approach the fall, which is there’s a ballot measure, you know, as all the little fiefdoms try to protect their money, there’s a ballot measure moving for the fall where the cities would try to keep the state from taking their money. And they’ll pitch it as, you know, as don’t take money from our police and firefighters, you know, but when the state takes that money it’s generally to go to schools. So it’ll be interesting to see those battle lines get drawn.

PENNER: And there’s always that question about whether the state really is taking money that doesn’t belong to the state. You know, people sort of couch things in odd ways sometimes. David, as I said earlier, next fiscal year looks even worse as the federal stimulus money ends. Now, let’s talk about that federal stimulus for a second. San Diego Unified paid for 116 teachers to lead smaller classes. They paid for counselors and coaches for disadvantaged students. With that money dried up, will there have to be – What will happen to those kids and to those smaller classes?

KING: Yeah, the federal money was given with such a contradiction here, the stimulus money. One, it’s one-time money so use it wisely because it’s not going to be there next year. Two, save jobs with it. Those are completely contradictory. School districts did what they can only do, which is to save jobs. Now the money’s gone. It won’t be there next year. And they just simply are going to have fewer teachers and fewer days in the classroom.

PENNER: Have you heard, John, of any discussions with the teachers unions or other educational employee organizations about salary adjustments, I guess that’s the best, kindest way to put it. I’m talking about accepting lower salaries.

WARREN: Well, last I heard, we weren’t moving in that direction here. I know in a couple of cities, people have – the unions have been receptive and they found that the numbers used by the districts were not right and that they felt they had been taken advantage of. And so I think the employees, at this point, teachers, as dues paying folks, are not interested in taking any more cuts. If the unions continue to have people laid off, they will lose their dues. And so it’s really – it’s not a question of just moving in and saying we’ll take more time off.

PENNER: David.

KING: Just to put a real number here and show, yes, could school districts do a better job of managing their money? Certainly. Everyone could. But the reimbursement from the state, the funding per student, has been cut from, for unified school districts, from roughly $5800 to $4800 per student. How can you run a school district when your funding from the state is cut so dramatically and your costs stay the same? It’s just – it’s a statewide problem. The state and the school districts have an obligation under the Constitution to adopt a budget by June 30th. The state has not adopted theirs yet, yet the legislature dismissed and everyone is home this weekend. These people need to get back on the plane and get together, adopt a budget.

PENNER: Let me just throw out one idea as we wrap this up. There are many school districts in San Diego County, something like 40, I think.

WARREN: 42.

KING: 42.

PENNER: Has anybody – Thank you. Has anybody brought up the idea of consolidating districts in order to eliminate the expense of overlapping positions?

KING: There’s been some talk about actually even splitting San Diego Unified into a separate district. I haven’t heard too many districts being interested in consolidating…

YOUNG: No.

KING: …having elected officials eliminate their own job.

WARREN: That’s no…

KING: It’s just – nobody proposes that.

PENNER: And on that note, I thank you very much, David King and John Warren and Ricky Young. I thank our listeners and our callers. This has been the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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