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Acting out

Scott Himelstein is still something of an unknown around the Capitol. He was the governor’s deputy secretary of education for the last 18 months. But he just took the office of the acting secretary of education on December 20, taking the reins from his former boss and longtime associate Alan Bersin. We asked Himelstein just what the “acting” secretary of education does–aside from the keeping the seat warm. And we tried to pin him down on some of the stickier parts of the governor’s education budget.

Capitol Weekly: How did you get tapped for the job?

Scott Himelstein: There certainly was a need for some continuity when Secretary Bersin left. There’s really no time to slow down. We’re right in the middle of the governor’s budget. The Legislature is coming back into session. So I think it was kind of a natural fit for the time being.

Are you a candidate for the permanent job?

You know what I’ve been saying is that I serve at the pleasure of the governor. I’m delighted he asked me to be the interim secretary. But it is up to the governor and the governor only to decide what he wants to do.

What are your main goals for that period? It’s more than just caretaking.

It’s absolutely not caretaking. There are some very positive and important steps that this office needs to take. We need to go out throughout California and explain what our budget is; why we’re implementing new policies. We have to communicate with the field. And we need to work with the Legislature and present our ideas in the governor’s budget to them, respond to their questions and their ideas as well. So there’s a lot to do.

What to you are the most positive parts of this education budget?

I think the thing to say up front–this is very important–is that this budget fully funds Proposition 98–the guarantee for K-through-community college education in the state. And in that is included a 4.04 percent cost-of-living adjustment. That’s something that is really important to districts in the field. I come from the San Diego school district, the second-largest district in the state. I think if you were to ask superintendents and school boards, its certainly very important for them to receive their growth in cost-of-living expenses.

I think another exciting piece of the budget is the governor’s continued investment in career and technical education. It’s something that the governor talks a lot about, something that he has really put his attention into and has increased funding, about 18 percent, since he took office.
The jobs of today do not look like the jobs of yesterday, particularly in areas like construction, medical technology, graphic arts. The world has changed due to technology and our curriculum and our ability to provide access for high-school students to those emerging sectors, you know, we’ve got to keep up. And we also need to recruit more career and technical-education teachers into the system. People who have experience in those fields, and we need to get them into the classroom. It’s harder to do now because the marketplace competes rather well. Individuals who do have those skills have lots of other opportunities other than the classroom. So our view is that we need to provide incentives and an easier pathway to enter the classroom, which we are doing.

What are the toughest parts of this budget?

Well, we’d all like more money for more things. There are lots of needs, wants and good things to do in education. It would be great if we had the resources. When the governor’s had them–like the state had a lot of extra dollars last year–he put them into education. Last year we did some incredible things with art, music, physical education and college fees. But this year, quite frankly, is not as good as last year. And the governor’s overall goal was to eliminate our operating deficit. So when you look at the overall structures of things–to be able to fully fund education and to eliminate the deficit, we view this as a very good budget. When and if we have additional resources, the governor has always said, “Children have the first run on our treasury.”

In large urban districts where there’s been declining enrollment, there’s some desire to figure out how to adjust the Average Daily Attendance formula to fund schools. Is that on the table?

It is an issue. We have many districts that have lost population, particularly in our urban areas. Yet we have other areas of California–like the Inland Empire, Central Valley, San Joaquin Valley, north and south San Diego county–that are growing dramatically. They have needs as well. In Riverside County alone they add 44 students every 24 hours. So it is tough. On the one side maybe you’ve got a large district that’s have the problem. On the other you’ve got maybe six new districts in the Inland Empire that say, “No, we need the funding as it is for us to keep up with growth.” So it’s a delicate balance.
There’s been concern with this budget over shifting school-bus-transportation funding out of Prop. 98 into the public-transportation budget. [See “Governor’s budget could permanently alter Prop. 98,” page A1]
Our proposal is to fund school transportation out of the Public Transportation Account. I think the bottom line here is that the governor is fully committed to funding school-bus transportation. There’s absolutely no reduction of service to any school district by doing this. I think the governor is saying that we need to live within in our means. This is one way to reduce the deficit by paying those costs through this particular fund.
It’s something that he’s going to discuss with the Legislature as it goes through the process. There may be some differing opinions on it. But I think the important part is that school-bus transportation is fully funded, it is just a different pot of money to do so.

The criticism is that you’re “re-benching” Prop. 98–that you’re lowering the guarantee for the next year.

Except the effect is that there is no reduction in the amount of money. We’re simply paying for school-bus transportation through another account. Again, this is something that’s going to be debated in Legislature. The governor and our office certainly look forward to that debate. But in the overall scheme of things, the governor’s concern is that we eliminate the operating deficit in California. This is one strategy to do that. We understand that there might be some differing opinions. The important thing is that under no circumstances do school districts receive less money for school-bus transportation.

Similarly, there’s concern about spending $269 million in Prop. 98 money on CalWORKs child-care programs.

That doesn’t involve any re-benching. Currently we provide for a lot of child-care out of Prop. 98. This is another way we can help eliminate the deficit by putting all of the child-care expenses into Prop. 98.
It’s been called a “slippery slope,” loading Prop. 98 up with programs that aren’t strictly education related.

I don’t think the charge of “loading up” is valid at all. This year’s total education budget is about $66 billion. The state’s portion is, I think, $55.1 million–right around there. Certainly there are a couple of things the governor is proposing to help us balance the budget, but, overall, when you add that up, $672 million for school-bus transportation and $269 million for CalWORKs, it’s a rather small portion. Remember that deficit spending is a rather slippery slope as well–a serious one that the governor had to confront when he took office.
The governor’s appointment to the Board of Education was just rejected by the Senate. You’ve got a hand in picking his replacement. What should we expect?
Certainly it is discussed among his staff. Ultimately it’s the governor’s pick and the governor’s decision who he wants to represent him on the state Board of Education.

So, who is it going to be?

I don’t know.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net

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