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Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as Writing Budgets A Guessing Game For Calif. Schools

Writing Budgets A Guessing Game For Calif. Schools

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Paul C. Disario likens his job to "flying blind."

This is the season when he drafts next year's spending plan for the 50,000- student San Juan Unified schools. Unfortunately, the state aid that accounts for 75 percent of the district's operating budget is tied up in the confusion and gridlock over how to close California's $35 billion budget gap.

And, as the budget officer for the San Juan district, Mr. Disario has seen a dizzying array of real and threatened state cuts upend his typical duties.

Instead of planning programs for 2003-04, he divides his time among begging the legislature not to reduce school aid, negotiating with the local teachers' union to reduce health-care benefits, and guessing where to make seemingly inevitable cuts in the district's budget.

"Nobody's quite sure where this ends up," Mr. Disario, who has been a district budget officer for 25 years, said recently. "It's not a time of reflection—we're just reacting."

It's a situation that is playing out in many other districts across the country, said Anne W. Miller, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International. Districts have taken steps from curtailing field trips to dropping a day from the school week to deal with state budget shortfalls, she said. Mostly, though, they are waiting, watching, and planning for the worst—and in some cases lobbying legislatures like never before.

"The thing that makes California different is their numbers are so much larger, but the issues are similar," said Ms. Miller, whose group is based in Reston, Va. "No state has escaped this."

For Mr. Disario, whose district is based here in Carmichael, the uncertainty is more troubling than knowing that there will be significant cuts. At least then, he explained, district leaders could complete their budget plans.

Instead, they must envision worst-case scenarios and notify staff members who might be laid off, exacerbating the stress already felt in an economic downturn.("Pink Slips: Fear and Loathing in California," this issue.)

'Extreme Scenarios'

San Juan Unified sits in a mostly middle-class suburb of the state capital. But its proximity to Sacramento hardly makes the district's budget picture any clearer.

The 50,000-student system has an annual operating budget of about $385 million. With three-fourths of that coming directly from the state, the budget for the next school year is a moving target, at best.

In addition, the district is already facing a deficit of $17 million in this year's budget.

Meanwhile, the California legislature is gridlocked over where, and by how much, to slash the current and upcoming education budgets. The state could see a $35 billion deficit, out of an $80 billion annual budget, over the next year, and has already made cuts to state-level education programs.

Last month, state officials decided to delay the last payment of per-pupil aid to districts for the current school year, setting the stage to decrease the annual appropriation next year.

The lack of a bottom line has left school administrators across the state immobilized, unsure of exactly how much they'll receive for the remainder of this school year and for the next one. Even as the legislature studies funding for next year, education may see further cuts this year.

With California's fiscal year ending June 30, it will likely be several months, or longer, before schools will have any idea how much they will receive.

"You've got these extreme scenarios, and we have no guidance in law," said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials. "It's created unusually high levels of anxiety among school budget officers across the state."

Mr. Disario of San Juan Unified notes that, unlike during other state recessions, lawmakers are giving schools little guidance on where or what to cut.

So far, San Juan has only cut some funding for new textbooks and supplies. Rather than panic, the district chose to ignore a recent proposal by Gov. Gray Davis to decrease significantly the remaining funds for this school year, betting instead that the Democratic governor's plan would not pass the legislature. It did not.

Mr. Disario, nonetheless, has publicized a worst-case document for his district. That contingency plan calls for dozens of steps: targeting the popular California program for smaller classes, imposing mass teacher layoffs, and cutting back on school maintenance and cleaning services, among others.

Teachers and students packed a recent school board meeting to speak out against some of the proposed cuts, such as reductions in guidance counselors, athletic programs, and teacher aides.

School board President Thomaysa Glover said the board would listen to the community before making cuts, but ultimately would look at what's best for all students. "I hate to say, 'Spread the pain,' but everyone's going to have to take some reductions," she said.

Impact Is Personal

California's fiscal uncertainty is dealing a blow to the planning efforts—past and present—of school administrators.

For example, many districts that have scrambled to hire teachers in recent years to help reduce class sizes, accommodate growing enrollments, and meet special learning needs must lay off some of their prized hires.

Under most teachers' union contracts, the last hired are the first to be laid off. Last month, San Juan Unified sent layoff notices to 600 of its 3,000 teachers. Many of those notices probably will not be needed, Mr. Disario said, but state law requires districts to give preliminary notification to any employee who might be affected.

The final pink slips—which make the layoffs official—go out May 15. Even then, the budget situation may not be resolved.

The unrest is permeating schools. Mr. Disario's wife, Kathy Poloni- Disario, is the principal at Trajan Elementary School. She gave layoff notices to four fully certified teachers whom she had hand-picked for the school.

Ms. Poloni-Disario herself has received a reassignment notice, as did all the school-level administrators. Now, as she plans for next fall, she also worries about being reassigned to another school, or even being moved to a teaching position.

"The worst thing about it is the uncertainty," she said. "If we just knew what was coming down, we could prepare and get ready, but we just don't know."

The Disarios have canceled a long-awaited vacation to Italy this summer because they need to stay close to their jobs. Ms. Poloni- Disario said they rarely spend time at home together, and on a recent weekend sailing trip, she noticed they both were quiet and pensive.

For the teachers who have received pink slips, the waiting is even more traumatic. Most of them are just starting their careers and are ill-prepared to handle financial uncertainty, not to mention the emotional toll of searching for new jobs.

Michelle Horner, who has taught 6th grade for three years, received a preliminary notice and has not decided whether to wait for word on her position in San Juan, or apply elsewhere. During brighter times recently, she and her husband, who is also a San Juan teacher, bought a house.

None of the teachers at Trajan Elementary School realized that layoffs were on the horizon, she said. "It was a great shock to all of us," Ms. Horner said.

And with the uncertainty, she added, "all the planning we'd be doing for next year has stopped."

Effect on Students

Although school officials complain that lawmakers in Sacramento are out of touch with local educators, California's top education officials say they are sympathetic to the districts' plights.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, a former Democratic state lawmaker who was elected state schools chief in November, has urged the legislature not to make any further cuts in education programs.

Last month, he testified before the legislature and sent a letter to budget and education committee leaders urging them not to cut any money from the budget for the current school year and to stave off any future cuts. The situation, he warned, "is quickly developing into a crisis."

California Secretary of Education Kerry A. Mazzoni, who was appointed by Gov. Davis and also served previously in the legislature, advises districts to try to stay the course, as much as possible, with academic programs that are showing success.

Ms. Mazzoni and many others in the state worry that the budget crisis will have a harsh impact on student achievement, which state assessments show to be rising steadily. "We want school districts to look at the programs most successful on student achievement and keep those as intact as possible," she said.

Mr. Disario, the San Juan budget chief, said a budget shortfall can force districts to run more efficiently, but he warned, "The school reform movement in California will be significantly slowed, if not ground to a halt."

Meanwhile, added Ms. Miller of the Association of School Business Officials, the new accountability requirements of the federal "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 likely will take a back seat to budget woes.

"If you're worried about turning the lights on in a building or running school buses—to the point that you're cutting out a day in the school week—that's very basic," she said, "and has to be dealt with immediately."

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 1,20-21

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