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Calif. Budget Cuts Could Shorten School Year

Millions of California parents and schoolchildren face a direct hit from the state's latest financial woes — the prospect of fewer school days that would make California's school year among the shortest in the nation and could worsen its already troubled school system.

California's public schools may see a boost in revenue with the elimination of redevelopment agencies.
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Above: California's public schools may see a boost in revenue with the elimination of redevelopment agencies.

The state's schools face up to $1.4 billion in automatic spending cuts after analysts determined that California's revenues have come in dramatically lower than Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers had hoped.

Among the options for school districts is slicing another seven days off the state's minimum 175-day school year, which already is five days shorter than before the recession began. Thirteen of the state's 30 largest school districts already have reduced their school year below the previous minimum 180 days, which is the national average.

This week, the state Legislative Analyst's Office released a bleak outlook that said 2011-12 revenue will run $3.7 billion below the $88.4 billion the governor and state lawmakers had assumed when they approved the state budget last summer. That shortfall would translate into $2 billion in automatic cuts that were part of the budget deal, most of which would fall on public schools.

But cutting the school year quickly could prove challenging unless lawmakers agree to revisit a law also passed last year that was intended to protect teachers' jobs, as some school administrators would like them to.

While lawmakers gave school districts the option of trimming the school year to as few as 168 days a year, Democrats in the Legislature also approved a bill that protected their labor allies. It requires districts to negotiate with unions if they want to cut teacher and staff pay to achieve a shorter school year or make emergency layoffs.

The last-minute bill, which the Democratic governor signed into law, was backed by the California Teachers Association.

At the time, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, defended the legislation as an effort to protect education jobs. Brown's finance director, Ana Matosantos, said the state wanted to prevent school districts from acting on the so-called trigger cuts before they needed to.

The California School Boards Association said unless lawmakers repeal the law or enact legislation to automatically reduce the school year, districts will have few options to quickly adjust to billions of dollars in cuts coming in the middle of the school year.

Many school districts already are in financial hardship after years of successive cuts in which they have increased class sizes and cut back on transportation, after-school and extra-curricular programs, said Martha Fluor, president of the California School Boards Association. Staff salaries and benefits make up 80 percent to 90 percent of most district budgets, leaving few other places to cut.

"They're going to have to give us either emergency legislation to take the steps to avoid insolvency ... or impose mandatory furloughs," Fluor said Thursday. "We've got school districts that are teetering on the brink."

At least 143 of California's 1,032 school districts are considered in financial jeopardy based on fiscal reviews by the state Department of Education.

Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor said the effect of the automatic spending cuts, which would occur after the first of the year, could vary dramatically from district to district because some planned their school budgets in anticipation of further cuts.

"For those districts that assumed that they wouldn't go into effect, did not plan, do not have high reserves, they're going to have a much more difficult time," Taylor said.

More time in the classroom is widely seen as essential to educational achievement, and many experts worry that cutting back the school year could worsen the state's already wide achievement gap, in which white and Asian students perform better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

Whether you're learning to play basketball or memorizing multiplication tables, the more time you spend doing it the more you are likely to learn, said Jack Jennings of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. Still, he said many states are considering shortening the school year or week to cope with smaller budgets.

"We are cutting into the bone. This means we're putting at risk the education of our children," he said.

The average American student spends far less time in the classroom than their counterparts around the world, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged schools to add days, rather than cut them.

"You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China," he told Denver high school students in 2009. "I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; 11, 12 months a year."

Only two states have school years shorter than 168 days: Colorado's school year is 160 days, while Michigan's is 165 days. Some states set only a minimum number of hours of instruction, making comparisons difficult.

San Diego schools already cut the school year to 175 days. Classes this year started two days after Labor Day, with a weeklong break at Thanksgiving and the last day coming on June 12.

Superintendent Bill Kowba said the 132,000-student district already has cut its staff from about 16,000 to around 14,000. He said reopening its collective bargaining agreements with teachers would be too difficult. Instead, the district is likely to tap its already low reserve and lay off bus drivers, custodians, administrative aides and other non-teaching staff.

He criticized the Legislature for leaving school districts in the lurch by passing a budget that relied on rosy revenue projections. The so-called trigger cuts that could come in the second half of the current school year will force schools to make reductions long after they have set budgets and hired teachers.

"That kind of uncertainty just doesn't work in a school district. Mid-year, am I going to stop algebra and geometry classes? Am I going to not allow 5-year-olds to enroll in January?" Kowba said. "I'm being a little facetious, but those are things that have to be considered."

The extent of the automatic cuts will be determined by the governor's Department of Finance after its own tax revenue projections are released by Dec. 15. The department will decide how much money to cut based on the higher of the two revenue projections.

There could be one bright light for Democrats, including Brown, who still want to put an initiative on the ballot next November to raise taxes.

Brown's efforts to do that were scuttled by legislative Republicans this year. But supporters of a tax initiative say that if Californians really feel the financial pinch of more spending cuts, the momentum will swing in favor.

The California State PTA is among the organizations advocating for a tax measure, along with the CTA and most Democrats.

Barbara Flannery, a mother of two teenagers who is president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs, said she is no longer surprised by what she called the "lack of commitment by our legislators to our education."

"At some point, you have to be willing to spend, and it seems like even with the basics we're saying we have less money and we'll have to do with less," she said. "I always hear that children are our greatest resource, but we don't contribute to their future. I'm willing to pay more taxes, but are corporations willing to pay more taxes?"

Steinberg, the Senate president, hinted that he would like to restore a 2 percent vehicle license fee that was reduced under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"The notion of cutting deeper into education, public safety and services for those in need is unthinkable," he said in a statement. "I imagine an overwhelming majority of Californians agree."

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