California's public schools are the big winners in Gov. Jerry Brown's "breakthrough" budget plan, with education leaders saying they hope to have the money to restore many of the public services gutted by years of recession.
With more revenue from the Proposition 30 tax initiative passed in November and an improving economy, officials for cash-strapped school districts, community colleges and public universities said they'll be able to stave off more cuts and stabilize their own operations.
Throughout Southern California, school officials on Thursday spoke of averting furloughs, minimizing layoffs and scheduling a full academic year. At the same time, there were concerns about Brown's proposal to shift adult education programs from school district control to the massive community college system.
The governor's budget also impacts how local governments in the Los Angeles area are able to provide health care services, with some officials questioning how they'll implement the federally mandated expansion of the Medi-Cal program for low-income residents.
Overall, however, Los Angeles-area officials and lawmakers seemed cautiously optimistic about the state's financial picture.
"For years, California has been the butt of jaded jokes and called a lost cause. Yet, we are emerging from the grip of financial crisis and keeping the California dream alive," said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys, who chairs the Assembly Budget
Under Brown's plan, California's school districts would get $56.2 billion in 2013-14, a $2.7 billion jump from this year. That would include repayment of $1.8 billion withheld from public schools since the financial crisis hit in 2008, as well as increases in per-pupil funding.
Brown wants to change how that money is allocated, using a weighted formula that would pay school districts and charter schools a premium for disadvantaged students. That would be a boon to districts like Los Angeles, Fontana and Long Beach Unified, which have large numbers of low-income students and English-learners.
"The budget looks very promising for the financial stability of Los Angeles Unified," said Superintendent John Deasy, who heads the state's largest school district. "I think the weighted student formula is the appropriate public policy, providing more resources for students who need the most support."
Brown last year proposed a weighted student formula, but it was was killed by lawmakers representing well-off districts who saw the change as unfair.
Burbank Unified Superintendent Jan Britz raised that objection Thursday, saying that suburban districts also need help recovering from the devastating impact of the recession.
"Don't leave us out of the picture just because we don't have the same kinds of kids," she said.
Gary Thomas, the schools superintendent for San Bernardino County, questioned whether Brown can muster the votes in the Legislature to change the funding formula.
"We know from the past that circumstances can change and impact what ultimately will be passed as the final budget," he said.
Brown also proposed allocating all the revenue from Prop. 39 - some $450 million next year - to fund energy-efficiency projects at K-12 campuses and community colleges. The goal is to build or modernize facilities that use renewable energy so districts can reduce their utility bills.
In addition, the governor wants to eliminate the spending restrictions on nearly $12 billion for categorical programs. The money would still flow to districts, but local officials could decide how it would be spent.
Leaders were divided on Brown's recommendation to shift adult education from school districts to community colleges, which would receive $300 million to run the programs.
"It was a surprise to me, but it's logical," said Bruce Baron, chancellor of the San Bernardino Community College District. "When you look at the redundancies in these parallel systems ... it's only logical that they'd be integrated."
State schools chief Tom Torlakson and officials in Los Angeles, however, had serious concerns.
Los Angeles Unified gutted its Adult Ed Division last in a money-saving move but still has more than 250,000 students enrolled in a slate of vocational, life skills and English-language programs.
"We're a very diverse, large urban area, and our adult ed program does different things than a community college does," said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, whose members teach at LAUSD's 30 adult schools and occupational centers.
"There's a huge need here for a system that provides basic skills and language instruction ... It's for the immigrant family wanting the American dream."
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, said he sees the need for changes in the adult education system, although he's concerned about serving the state's increasingly diverse population.
"We need adult ed to be more effective, efficient and equitable," he said. "We also need to make sure that it meets the needs of our immigrant community."
Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris conceded the proposed shift is a "provocative issue" that will be debated as lawmakers begin the budget process. He foresees a system in which the $300 million would be divided among the 72 community college districts, with local officials determining how the money would be spent.
Yasmin Delahoussaye, a vice chancellor in the Los Angeles Community College District, said Brown's plan would likely mean significant cuts to local adult ed offerings.
"If we had to do this, there would be a much smaller program," she said. "People forget that in community colleges, (instructors) have a master's or doctorate degree. The cost of instruction alone would be cost prohibitive. There's no way we could provide the full range of services that LAUSD offers."
Harris and others, however, were pleased at the $197 million infusion that would allow the 112-campus system to enroll an additional 500,000 students who were turned away because of the budget crisis. He also hopes to expand online courses, creating a "virtual campus" that would help boost transfer and graduation rates.
Other higher education officials lauded Brown's proposal, which allocates an additional $125 million for both the the Cal State University and University of California systems.
The Cal State funding includes $10 million to develop online alternatives for popular courses.
Health care was another topic of debate, with questions about Brown's plan to implement the federal Affordable Care Act - the reform package known as Obamacare - by the 2014 deadline.
Diana Dooley, the state's Health and Human Services secretary, offered a positive view of Brown's proposal to expand Medicaid - which is offered in California as Medi-Cal - saying it would be "a significant relief on the system and is a relief to the counties."
She also called it a vast improvement from the "boom and bust roller coaster of the last many years."
Brown has earmarked $350 million for the program, provided that the federal government also matches those funds.
But Los Angeles County officials called the proposed budget "really murky" and say it appears to stunt the expansion of Medi-Cal. They also worried that the county - with its 10 million residents - might be forced to pick up the tab.
"It would serve to limit the number of people that would be included in the expansion, the way it looks here," said Fred Leaf, former county health director and now senior health policy adviser to Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
Los Angeles County Assistant CEO Ryan Alsop said the proposed state budget is "rather benign" in that it "does not make the drastic cuts to county services that we've seen in budgets past."
Nevertheless, he has serious concerns about possible cuts in health care funding the county has relied on for decades.
"Even after Obamacare is implemented in this state, the L.A. County health care system is going to have to be sustained to help hundreds of thousands of people in this county who will not be covered under Obamacare, who will not have insurance," Alsop said.
Supervisor Don Knabe expressed similar reservations about the plan.
"Gov. Brown's suggestion that he may reduce the $2 billion the state gives to counties to care for the uninsured is very premature," Knabe said. "We do not yet understand the full impact of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, but we do know that L.A. County will remain the safety net for hundreds of thousands of people who will remain uninsured."
Staff Writers Susan Abram, Christina Villacorte, Kelly Puente and Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.