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Educators brace for sharp budget knife

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to cut deep into education funding includes shortening the K-12 school year by a week – the first time in the history of the state, experts say, that the school year has been sharply reduced, rather than lengthened. But that measure, among others, is being offered because the current economic crisis “is probably the most challenging  budget situation the state has ever faced,” the administration says.

“Most other industrialized countries are in excess of 200 days a year, and today we go 180 days. This proposal would whack that to 175 days,” said state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal is one of scores of  budget-balancing ideas offered by the governor in an attempt to cover a nearly $40 billion shortage over 18 months. Including his proposed $2 billion emergency reserve, the total budget deficit described by the administration is $41.6 billion, although Capitol budget experts say even that number may be too low.

In raw dollars, the governor seeks to cut about $6 billion from education from a myriad of funding sources, but that number is a moving target and may change when budget deliberations begin in earnest later this month. The Republican governor has proposed a mix of taxes, cuts, borrowing and deferred payments to come up with the money.

Among those taking hard hits are the schools, including some 1,100 school districts, the 107-campus community college system and the state university and University of California.

 “The Governor’s proposal to reduce current year funding to public education by over $6 billion will be extremely difficult for school districts to absorb. I am particularly concerned about the proposal to defer $2.8 billion in payments due early in 2009 to the next fiscal year. This will create a cash flow crisis for school districts,” O’Connell said.

Community colleges, without a cost-of-living-adjustment since 2007-08 and facing enrollment increases, note that they face the equivalent of a 10 percent cut.

The California Budget Project, a nonprofit group and the only non-government entity that systematically examines the state budget, says the 2009-10 budget blueprint provides $3.1 billion less for education than the year before. The CBP analyzes state budgets to determine their impact on moderate and low-income people. But the CBP says the $3.1 billion figure may not reflect the entirety of the proposed reduction and could be higher, depending on changing fiscal conditions.

The administration believes the state’s economic woes warrant emergency action, and Schwarzenegger’s top budget writer, Finance Department Director Mike Genest, said that the actions were “not a matter of political showmanship.”

The educational community is not convinced, with many believing that the fiscal plight of the schools has been aggravated in part by the state’s mismanagement.

“Sacramento deserves an ‘F’ in the category of school finance,” said San Leandro school board member Stephen Cassidy in an opinion piece in the California Progress Report. “California ranks 47th in the nation in spending per student when accounting for regional cost differences, spending $1,900 less than the national average.”

Despite the severity of the fiscal crises, lawmakers and the governor thus far have been unable to reach agreement on even the basics of dealing with the red ink.

The Legislature is mired in deep partisanship, with minority Republicans vowing to oppose any taxes and majority Democrats opposing GOP-sought cuts in social services and education, among others. Democrats control both the Senate and Assembly, but do not have the two-thirds majorities required under California law to approve a budget. Last month,  Democrats pushed through a series of budget-balancing bills that they argued required only simple-majority votes; Schwarzenegger has vowed to block the attempt with his veto power, while Republicans said the majority-vote strategy was illegal.

Schwarzenegger’s latest budget plan is similar to one he proposed weeks ago but was rejected in the Legislature, with much of the strongest opposition coming from his fellow, anti-tax Republicans. The governor, hoping to cut costs, earlier ordered two-day, forced furloughs for the 240,000-strong state workforce beginning in February. The move amounts to a roughly a 9.5 percent cut.

State Controller John Chiang says the state will run out of cash by February, absent action from the state. The administration already is considering borrowing to cover short-term debt, issuing nearly $5 billion worth of so-called Revenue Anticipation Warrants, and hopes to get $5 billion by borrowing against future proceeds from the state lottery.

The governor also has proposed $14 billion in cuts over 18 months plus some $10 billion in new money from a 1.5 percent boost in the statewide sales tax.

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