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School Cuts Again Seen as Last Resort in Calif.

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California lawmakers are preparing for yet another painful summer searching for ways to make up a huge shortfall in the state budget.

With analysts predicting a deficit of between $3 billion and $5 billion for fiscal 1995, Gov. Pete Wilson last week indicated that he wants the legislature to make program cuts the top priority in balancing the budget.

For the state's hard-pressed schools, however, the good news was that the Governor renewed his pledge to keep per-pupil spending in the public schools at this year's $4,217 average level. Because education spending is such a large part of the budget, many education lobbyists had assumed that the Governor could not find enough program cuts elsewhere.

"We were absolutely flabbergasted he didn't go after us,'' said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Association, which issued a press release encouraging lawmakers to follow the Governor's lead.

Governor Wilson, who is up for re-election this fall, presented a revised budget that called for cuts in health and welfare programs and aid to local governments. The Governor has also been active in seeking reimbursement from the federal government for services provided to illegal immigrants.

Despite the severe belt-tightening in recent budgets, Mr. Wilson and lawmakers appear to have reached an unspoken agreement that they will make school cuts a last resort.

Still, education officials acknowledged that their priority in the budget talks was hardly a cause for celebration.

"We appreciate the effort at keeping even,'' said Susie Lange, a spokeswoman for the state education department. "But, in effect, that's a loss for schools.''

Leaky Roofs and Aging Boilers

The state's log of financially troubled school districts has remained relatively constant over the last few years, officials said, with about 30 districts on the list. Even for districts not in dire shape, though, the outlook is far from bright.

A recent survey of 51 districts found that class sizes continue to increase. School services have fallen below recommended levels in such areas as school libraries, counseling, and school nurses.

The poll, conducted by EdSource, a Menlo Park-based clearinghouse on California school information, concluded that many schools have responded to the austere budget picture by cutting school-based health screenings, building maintenance, and the number of teaching aides.

Officials said such trends are likely to continue next year even with steady funding from the state.

In the Fort Bragg Unified School District on the northern California coast, for example, district officials this year cut $450,000 from their $10.5 million budget and anticipate similar reductions next year.

Because California districts are limited in their ability to raise local funds through property taxes, the tight state budgets hit hard, according to Tony Sorci, the 2,500-student district's superintendent.

"In hard times, we suffer,'' Mr. Sorci said. "We've laid off 50 people this year, and we've got boilers hanging on and leaky roofs. But we try to have a positive outlook because it's pretty much out of our hands.''

The budget climate has turned into a permanent distraction for many school officials, observers said.

"Certainly not all California's public school districts are hurting financially,'' the EdSource report says. "But a significant number of districts have found themselves preoccupied with the task of addressing basic and immediate needs, leaving little energy and few resources for reinventing their work to develop world-class students.''

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