Bloomberg News

California Schools Say Budget’s Teacher Shield Spells Trouble

July 01, 2011

July 1 (Bloomberg) -- California’s new budget may put school districts already facing financial pressures into deeper peril, under a provision that Republicans say was a concession to unions by Democrats who run the Legislature.

The $86 billion budget Governor Jerry Brown signed yesterday bars administrators from dismissing teachers in the fiscal year that begins today, even if their aid is cut because state revenue fails to meet forecasts. The measure may force districts to pay for those salaries out of emergency reserves.

“This just doesn’t make any sense, so there has to be some special interest involved,” said Senator Jean Fuller, a Bakersfield Republican and former school superintendant. “Certainly it’s either poorly written or it has priorities that are not in the best interest of parents and students.”

California has 143 school districts that either won’t meet or may not be able to meet their financial obligations in the next two fiscal years, according to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, including 13 that can’t pay their bills. The state had the second highest-paid teachers in the U.S. as of 2009, while California ranked 43rd in per-pupil spending, according to the National Education Association.

The new budget triggers $1.5 billion of additional cuts to schools midway through the year if the state’s nascent economic recovery doesn’t produce $4 billion of extra revenue Democrats wrote into their spending plan. The budget anticipates receipts exceeding official projections by at least that much.

Barring Job Cuts

An education measure that accompanied the fiscal 2012 spending plan requires school districts to assume the same level of funding that they got in the fiscal year that ended yesterday and prohibits personnel reductions from those levels.

That means if revenue falls short, schools must find other ways to absorb budget cuts, such as forcing teachers and support workers to take unpaid days off and shortening the academic year by a week. Those steps would require union approval, since the legislation didn’t give district administrators the power to impose the measures unilaterally.

“There’s a real challenge when you’ve already started the school year,” said Debra Brown, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Association. “There’s not much else you can do.”

Her group wrote a letter to Brown yesterday urging him to repeal the rule against cutting jobs. It would constrain districts’ ability to balance their budgets in the event of midyear cuts from Sacramento, the association said.

‘Troubling’ Provision

To require school board members to “disregard their duty to balance local budgets in a reasonable and responsible manner is troubling,” Vernon Billy, the group’s executive director, said in the statement.

If unions balk at concessions, schools may be forced to use reserve accounts set aside to finance emergency needs such as dealing with a structure fire or a legal judgment.

“The budget is essentially limiting schools to only one tool in their toolbox -- furloughs -- for dealing with mid-year cuts,” said Bob Blattner, a lobbyist for school districts with Blattner & Associates. “Furloughs are the equivalent of a two- handed saw; if the local bargaining units don’t help from their end, the tool is useless.”

Using so-called rainy day funds may cost districts their required county-level budget certifications, which assure creditors that they can pay their bills in the current and next two fiscal years. So the Democrats’ education measure shortens the financial certification period to one year from three.

Dangerous Elimination

School Services of California, an education consultant in Sacramento, warned that eliminating that early-warning system could prove ruinous.

“Just the notion that school agencies will not be required to submit multiyear budget projections is a road to disaster, especially if the state turns around and cuts funding for schools under the ‘trigger provision’ adopted as part of the state budget,” Ron Bennett, School Services’ president, said in a letter to Brown urging him to veto that provision.

The education finance measure was backed by the 325,000- member California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teacher union. The union spent $2.4 million on political campaigns in 2009 and 2010, according to secretary of state records. The union contributed to Democrats Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez and Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Robert Blumenfield, whose committee wrote the bill.

Purpose of Measure

The provision is intended to give school administrators reassurance that they won’t need to take drastic measures during the school year, said Ana Matosantos, Brown’s budget director.

“It was trying to make sure that folks do not plan for the contingency because the contingency is not the plan,” she told reporters yesterday in Sacramento.

Brown, in a message after signing the bill, said school boards retain the power to trim their own budgets to deal with losing federal funds and student enrollment.

The teachers’ association lobbied for the measure along with protections in the budget bill, said Dean E. Vogel, the union’s president. Vogel said school districts issued about 20,850 layoff notices in March, of which 8,500 have been rescinded.

“That’s one way to frame it -- protecting jobs -- but what we’re really trying to do is protect the learning environment for kids,” said Vogel, who taught kindergarten and first grade in Vacaville before rising to the head of the union. “Our schools are under tremendous pressure right now.”

--Editors: Ted Bunker, Jerry Hart.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael B. Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net; James Nash in Sacramento at jnash24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net


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