(Updates with teacher union comment starting in seventh paragraph.)
Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Public schools in California, which already spend less per student than those in 28 states, are bracing for a $1.7 billion cut that may wipe out high-school sports and student busing, and trim the academic calendar by seven days next year.
Automatic cuts built into this year’s budget, intended to protect bondholders if revenue falls short of projections, are drawing new attention after California fell $705 million behind estimates in the first quarter.
A shortfall of $1 billion will slash hundreds of millions of dollars from universities and care of the elderly and disabled. A deficit of $2 billion will trigger reductions to public schools, creating “a fiscal emergency” that could leave some districts insolvent, a group of superintendents told Governor Jerry Brown in a Sept. 15 letter.
“We’re certainly really, really close to the first round of trigger cuts and inching closer to ours,” said Debra Brown, lobbyist for the California School Boards Association, referring to the second round of cuts concentrated on schools. “It is a little troubling.”
California earmarked $64.1 billion for kindergarten through 12th grade in the current budget. The cuts would remove $1.5 billion, the equivalent of seven school days, and a $248 million subsidy for bus service.
School officials say districts can’t shorten the academic year without agreements with unions, which means reopening contracts. The state budget also bars schools from dismissing teachers.
Dean Vogel, president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said he expects local affiliates to be flexible. Districts shouldn’t have the power to impose terms, such as shortening the school year, he said.
“We have a vehicle for solving these kinds of differences locally,” Vogel said by telephone. “That vehicle is collective bargaining.”
State officials wouldn’t dictate specific cuts to local districts, said Carol Bingham, a senior fiscal policy adviser at the Education Department. The state would give districts the option of reducing the school year by as many as seven days from the current 175, she said.
Shorter School Years
Each day of school forfeited would save about $215 million, said H.D. Palmer, a Finance Department spokesman.
“The reason we have said up to seven days is it is the least amount of steps to achieve the greatest amount of savings,” Palmer said in a telephone interview.
The San Diego Unified School District, California’s second- largest with 130,000 students, already shortened its school year to 175 days from 180 two years ago because of budget cuts, said Linda Zintz, a spokeswoman said.
District officials would probably look at eliminating high- school sports and other extracurricular programs before cutting the school year again, she said by telephone.
“That is not a viable solution for us,” Zintz said. “That’s taking away from kids.”
California spent $9,657 per student on kindergarten- through-12th-grade education in 2008-09, the latest data available, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. The national average that year was $10,499.
The Golden State’s high-school dropout rate of 5 percent exceeded the national average of 4.1 percent in 2007-2008, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Rather than make further cuts to public education, California lawmakers should revisit the automatic cuts to spare schools while further reducing social programs and “bureaucracy,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, a Republican from Modesto.
“Before the trigger cuts are put into effect -- and clearly that seems like where we’re heading -- we need to come back to Sacramento to discuss everything,” Olsen said in a telephone interview. “Our resources need to go to education and public safety the most.”
--Editors: Pete Young, Mark Schoifet
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