Some school districts are calling it the "worst-case scenario" -- a $2 billion cut in K-12 education funding that is all but guaranteed if California doesn't extend a $12.6 billion package of temporary taxes.
But the worst-case scenario, in fact, is far worse than that.
California's budget deficit is $26.6 billion. About 40 percent of the state's general fund is allocated to public schools. If the temporary taxes expire this year and the Legislature suspends the state's minimum-funding guarantee for schools, K-12 education cuts could easily reach $4 billion or more, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
That's $700 per student, about 13 percent of the average school district's general-purpose money. And it's twice the amount that many California school districts are preparing to cut from next year's budget.
The funding scenarios that schools could face are so wildly different -- from flat funding to the loss of $1,000 per student -- that the two East Bay agencies in charge of monitoring local school districts' budgets don't even agree on how to advise their respective districts.
The Alameda County Office of Education has asked local school boards to plan for a loss of $349 per student, a recommendation in line with that of the School Services of California consulting firm. The Contra Costa County Office of Education has taken a more aggressive tack, telling its districts to set aside a $300-per-student reserve in addition to the cuts recommended in Alameda County and elsewhere. If the tax measure doesn't make it onto the June ballot, the Contra Costa agency will require its districts to cut their budgets by $650 per student.
Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan said that after four years of budget cuts, many districts have already packed classrooms to the maximum levels allowed under union contracts. Cutting $600 or $700 per student is not possible for some districts without major restructuring, she said.
"Your basic district, without a lot of parcel taxes and bonds, they just can't do it," Jordan said. "It becomes really overwhelming and, I think, unnecessarily overwhelming at this time to ask people to make those cuts."
Bill Clark, the associate superintendent for business services in the Contra Costa Office of Education, agrees that such an outcome would be "horrific." But, he said, it's clear to him that if the temporary taxes in question don't pass, districts will be confronted with per-student cuts of at least $650.
"Our feeling is, it's better to confront the facts and get the planning in motion," Clark said.
In January, public school advocates felt a wave of relief when California's new governor, Jerry Brown, announced that he planned to protect K-12 education from further cuts. But his plan to close the deficit calls for deep reductions to other areas of the budget, including higher education, redevelopment and social services. It also hinges on a June special election for the extension of temporary vehicle, sales and income taxes.
By Friday afternoon, it was unclear if Californians would even have a chance to vote on a tax extension. On the eve of the March 10 deadline he had set for the Legislature to approve the special election, Brown announced he would delay the vote. Negotiations between Brown and five Republican lawmakers were expected to continue through the weekend.
California's superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, announced Friday that time was running "dangerously short" to place the tax extension on the ballot. He said he was advising county superintendents to be prepared for a $4.5 billion cut -- more than $750 per student. Torlakson said he also wanted to know how districts planned to make ends meet if the state delays payments of more than $2 billion until 2012-13, as Brown has proposed.
The Hayward school district, which is already digging itself out of a budget hole, will be more than $6 million in the red if the temporary taxes expire. John Swett, a small district in west Contra Contra County, is also on shaky financial ground.
This week, letters of possible layoff are making their way through the mail to thousands of California teachers. The law requires districts to let teachers know by March 15 if their jobs are in jeopardy, even if they don't know how much money they'll actually have.
The Mt. Diablo school district is sending 93 notices to teachers, and Antioch is sending 50. West Contra Costa's school board cut 58 teaching positions. The Pleasanton district sent notices to 83 full- and part-time teachers. Although a $12 million parcel tax passed last week in Alameda, the district stuck with its original plan to send pink slips to more than 50 teachers. Many of those notices could be rescinded next month; because of the parcel tax, the district is no longer preparing to close a quarter of its schools.
The Walnut Creek school district is an exception. It's not only avoiding layoffs, it's offering its employees a 3 percent raise from its additional reserves.
Mt. Diablo's superintendent, Steven Lawrence, aims to reduce millions of dollars from the district's budget through furlough days and other union concessions. His other budget-balancing proposals would reduce school office, library and custodial staffs and virtually wipe out grounds maintenance.
Late Friday afternoon, the Mt. Diablo teachers union reached a tentative agreement with the district to save jobs by accepting furloughs; the district is sending about half the number of pink slips it had originally prepared.
The Oakland school district plans to cut $12.6 million from its budget. Its school board voted to eliminate as many as 538 teaching positions -- a measure taken in case the state slashes its per-student funding by $900, or $30 million.
But the Oakland school district isn't otherwise preparing for such a scenario. A cut of that magnitude would shatter the district, principals and staff say, forcing it to close schools on a mass scale. Even Manzanita SEED Elementary School -- one of two in California honored by the U.S. Department of Education this year for closing the achievement gap -- wouldn't be safe, said its principal, Katherine Carter.
As it is, Carter said, the state's general purpose funding is not nearly enough to run her small school. It covers her position, an administrative assistant and five teachers for 250 students, she said. Local parcel tax proceeds and federal grants buy her the other classroom teachers she needs.
With a more drastic state cut, she said, "We simply do not have the guarantee that we'll have the money to keep our program running."
Staff writers Theresa Harrington, Chris Metinko, Robert Dennis, Eric Kurhi, Robert Jordan and Shelly Meron contributed to this report. Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog atIBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/KatyMurphy.