State budget takes a chunk out of schools

But one local district looks on the bright side of Proposition 98 and federal stimulus money

CRUNCH, CRUNCH <br>Jan Combes, assistant superintendent for business services at Chico Unified School District, says the finalized state budget is about what she expected.

Jan Combes, assistant superintendent for business services at Chico Unified School District, says the finalized state budget is about what she expected.

Photo By matt siracusa

Until Tuesday (July 28), the Chico Unified School District didn’t know exactly what it was going to get as far as state funding for the last school year—or the one coming up. That day, when Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the budget-revision package, and despite the huge cuts to education spending, Jan Combes, CUSD assistant superintendent for business services, seemed much calmer than when the CN&R last checked in with her.

Maybe that’s because she doesn’t have to guess anymore. And, as she had crunched numbers conservatively, not much came as a surprise.

“It’s about what we expected,” she said. “We’re going to get a little more for ’08-09 and a little less for ’09-10.”

She’s also relieved, she said, that the state did not overturn Proposition 98, which guarantees school funding.

“The good news for education is that the ambiguity for us is gone about whether or not they’re going to maintain the Proposition 98 guarantee,” she said.

But what the state has done is an act of accounting trickery—stealing from one pot to fill another, she said. So where CUSD and other districts might face holes in one area, they have flexibility to fill them with money previously designated elsewhere.

A case in point: The state is implementing a one-time cut of $250 per student for the ’09-10 school year. That’s taking from money the district would have been able to use in the classrooms. But, funding previously earmarked for textbooks has been freed up, as districts have been told they don’t have to buy new ones until 2013-14 and can use that money however they choose.

“It’s a big shell game,” Combes said wryly. “It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.”

Staff will be looking at various options over the next month or so to see how best to utilize all the monies. So, Combes couldn’t give a solid answer as to how the classrooms would be affected by this final state budget.

What Combes does know is that the district will take a 7.8 percent hit for the 2008-09 school year just finished, which is less than the 12 percent anticipated. But for 2009-10, funds will be cut by 18 percent, in addition to the $250 per student.

With all this going on, Combes added, the state is also shifting the cycle of paying schools—so, money usually received this month won’t come until December and what’s scheduled to arrive in November won’t come until January.

“The reductions that our schools must absorb now will heighten the challenge educators face in trying to increase student achievement and close the achievement gap, and I fear that the last decade of progress in statewide student test scores will be interrupted,” State Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell told the editor of California Progress Report.

The good news is, just last week the CUSD announced it had received a large chunk of money as part of the federal stimulus package. While some is earmarked for specific uses (school cafeterias, for example), about $4.4 million is available for any project. The district decided to break that up over two years and use much of it to save about 40 full-time-equivalent positions and a number of programs, including International Baccalaureate and Academy for Change.

Perhaps the most contentious change for the coming school year is the increase in class size for grades K-3 from 20 to 30. Combes said she hoped some of the freed-up monetary resources would go back into those classrooms—if not to rehire teachers to reduce class sizes, then to hire support teachers or staff to help out in the bigger classrooms.

“We hope to be able to provide additional resources to be able to support the fact that there is 30-1 in the classroom,” she said.

While districts around the state are facing a similar pinch, at its last school board meeting the Paradise Unified School District voted not to reduce class sizes.

In addition to flexibility in textbook funding, CUSD—and other school districts, including those in Paradise and Oroville—will have flexibility in a number of other areas, including:

• The ability to cut the school year by five days.

• Maintenance costs. The percentage of each district’s budget required to go to maintenance costs was reduced from 1 percent (down from 3 percent in January) to zero. (“Districts still have to keep their facilities in good repair,” Combes added.)

• Unused property. Districts are now able to sell surplus property and use the money however they choose (previously that money would be designated for facilities only).

“We’re glad to have flexibility on instructional materials and school days, but we’re concerned about the fact that the state has a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” Combes summed up. “We know that long-term wise, the federal stimulus dollars that we received are going to run out in two years.”