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Fiscal Crisis Threatens San Jose With Early End to School Year

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San Jose, Calif--A few years ago, the San Jose Unified School District was poised to take its place among the nation's most flourishing public-school systems.

Its teachers and administrators had been recruited nationally. The growth of the computer industry in Silicon Valley--a major center for the electronics industry in the United States--also spurred the district to push forward to satisfy the demands of highly educated, future-oriented parents.

Today, the San Jose district--still the eighth largest in California, even though it has lost 5,000 students in the last five years--is broke. According to its officials, the district could be forced to close its doors before the end of this school year.

In recent years, San Jose school officials have closed nine of their 52 schools, eliminated all 52 counseling positions and laid off more than 500 teachers and classified workers to balance anemic budgets. The 32,000-student district, located 45 miles south of San Francisco, even pulled out of the state program that brought matching dollars for the upkeep of school buildings because it had no dollars to be matched.

Despite those cuts, the district was forced this year to renege on giving its 1,400 teachers a 6-percent raise negotiated two years ago as part of a three-year collective-bargaining contract, because the money could not be found. The teachers' union has challenged the action and an arbitrator's ruling is expected on the question next month.

If the arbitrator rules in favor of the teachers, it will cost the district $3.7 million to pay for the salary increases, plus an un6determined amount of interest on the money.

Superintendent of Schools Lillian C. Barna said the district would have to either borrow the money from the state or close its doors. State officials, who sent a special audit team to the district two weeks ago to seek solutions to the crisis, say they have no money to lend.

In addition to this year's problems, the district faces a $14-million deficit in next year's budget, the superintendent said.

"I will be remembered as the superintendent who closed schools and whose name was on all the layoff notices," said Ms. Barna, who last year declined an increase in her $59,800 salary. "We can't provide a quality education for our kids anymore."

Decline in Public Support

The apparent financial decay of the San Jose school district is, officials suggest, part of the larger statewide decline in public support for education over the last decade. In 1972-73, California's per-pupil expenditure was $955, 16th among the states; this year, the state's per-pupil expenditure, $2,490, ranks 36th nationally, according to state statistics.

San Jose is not the only California district in financial trouble, but it is the largest district to be in such serious difficulty. And San Jose officials, unlike some in smaller districts that have declared bankruptcy, have not been accused of mismanagement or failing to curb costs.

Ms. Barna advised against the three-year contract for employees, she said, but it was approved by the school board at a time when three of its five members were seeking re-election. "They approved a three-year contract not knowing what the funding would be," the superintendent added.

Even with this year's pay increases withheld in an attempt to trim back last year's $75.4-million budget, San Jose's teachers are the highest-paid of those in California's 20 largest school districts, with an average salary of nearly $30,000 a year.

That fact dismays parents like Ronald Higgin, president of the San Jose Parent Association for Children's Education. "We're not anti-teacher," said Mr. Higgin, an executive with an electronics firm, "we're pro-student. We would love to see every teacher in this state receive top salaries. However, we can't sit by and let them receive more money at the expense of students."

As a result of San Jose's budget-cutting efforts, the school day for its students is one of the shortest in California, which already has the nation's shortest average school day for the 2.1 million students in its 1,044 public-school districts. Also, San Jose students take five instead of the average six periods of classes, and high-school students who fail more than one course during their four years cannot obtain enough credits to graduate without going to summer school.

But summer school, except for a few special programs, is no longer offered by the district.

The cuts have also eliminated almost all of the district's music and art programs, and textbooks, supplies, and equipment are scarce. At San Jose's Lincoln High School, for example, lockers are bent, rusted, and unusable, but school officials say they can't even afford to take them out. In one American history class, students are using a textbook published in 1967.

Bryan McKenna, executive director of the San Jose Classroom Teach-ers Association, agrees that the district's problems are serious but says teachers should not be made the scapegoats. "Our position is that they should run a full program until they run out of money and then close down, because what you're offering is little more than a babysitting service," he said.

The district got into its current "mess," according to Mr. McKenna, because it "didn't sit on big, fat reserves, as other districts did. It put money into programs, and it produced. Many of our teachers were recruited by the district from around the country. It went out of its way to recruit the best that money could buy."

Now, he continued, "politicians are playing a political game. They say they're all for quality education, but they hide behind rhetoric about school reform and getting rid of incompetent teachers in the classroom. But it's like anything else: If you want quality, you've got to pay for it."

Ms. Barna and others maintain that support can only come through new taxes. But John Vasconcellas, San Jose's Democratic assemblyman and the chairman of the state General Assembly's Ways and Means Committee, said that although he would support a temporary state surtax on cigarettes or alcohol, nothing is going to happen until Gov. George Deukmajian, who is a Republican, "recognizes the urgency of the situation and adopts a realistic policy."

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