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Threat of Midyear Cuts Alarms Educators

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Summer school went first.

Then, as the state budget crisis continued, legislators dropped the required school year length from 180 to 175 days to offset deep education funding cuts.

Now state officials have OK'd eliminating seven more days—down to 168—if a $1.5 billion cut needs to be made to schools at midyear. Any employee furloughs, however, would have to be negotiated with local unions.

"It's getting to a point where we're not able to meet the needs of our students," said Trudy Tuttle Arriaga, superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District.

"When we're not able to offer summer school, and we are decreasing the number of days ... we're jeopardizing the quality of education," she said.

After three years of deep education cuts, the recently passed state budget proposes mostly flat funding for K-12 schools. But the budget also includes about $4 billion in additional tax revenue that officials have projected. If at least half of that money doesn't materialize, school funding would be cut by about $1.5 billion at midyear.

It creates uncertainty for school districts, but state legislators barred them from considering it when setting their budgets for the year, hoping to stave off class-size increases or teacher layoffs.

"Fiscally and ethically that puts us in a really, really precarious position," Arriaga said. "How are you to plan for flat funding when it's articulated that we might have midyear cuts?"

In recent years local districts have cut hundreds of positions, shortened the school year, increased class sizes and eliminated some programs in response to the budget crisis.

Districts have maintained some programs by relying on one-time funds, such as federal stimulus dollars. Because some of that funding is gone, districts have financial challenges even without further state cuts.

Local educators are looking at options and hope to get more clarification from the state, said Ken Prosser, associate superintendent of the Ventura County Office of Education.

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"I think most of our districts are not rushing into anything. I think they are trying to review what's going on and make informed decisions about how they need to move forward through this process," Prosser said.

State legislators OK'd several other changes that have created angst for educators, including giving districts a year reprieve from having to show they will be able to meet all financial obligations over a three-year period.

That move concerns Prosser. It's impossible to plan effectively too far into the future, he said.

"But you can't just budget in a bubble for one year," Prosser said. "You have to always consider how your decisions today will affect the district in the future."

Prosser said the state may have had concerns that districts would be too conservative and impose layoffs and program cuts that might not be necessary. But no one knows what next year's funding will look like, he said.

Local districts may have been cautious and not counted on 100 percent of the state's proposed funding. But they likely would have counted on most of it, which would mean rescinding layoffs and pulling back on planned cuts, he said.

"School districts are in business to educate kids, and they want to educate kids," he said.

There are pros and cons to multiyear plans, said Arleigh Kidd, a Simi Valley Unified School District trustee and an organizer for the California Teachers Association. Planning for the future is important, but it can force districts to be too conservative, he said.

Districts must strike a balance, Kidd said. He thinks Simi Valley has done that. While trustees passed a conservative budget by the mandatory deadline of June 30, they hope to soon bring back some of the laid-off employees and undo other cuts.

Ventura Unified officials have pulled back on some cuts already. Weeks ago, when it looked like schools would be getting flat funding, they reduced a planned 10-day furlough to eight days. Now that a state budget is in place, district officials will take another look at possibilities for next year, Arriaga said.

Through nearly $20 million in state cuts in recent years to Ventura Unified, district officials have done their best to keep people employed and maintain programs, she said.

"But ... as a superintendent, I definitely want to ensure solvency for the next three years," she said. "I'm not comfortable saying, 'Let's spend it all and see what happens.' "

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