It's good news for parents, but may be bad news for kids: Despite the prospect of massive cuts in education funding, the 2011-12 school year probably won't get any shorter.
That doesn't mean the cuts, estimated to be $180 per student, won't be painful. But in most cases they will not prompt bankruptcies, more furloughs or a shorter school year. Graduations will go on as planned with pomp and circumstance.
That's because school officials largely skirted a state law ordering them to ignore the possibility of dramatic midyear budget cuts when planning their finances earlier this year. And even though those cuts are a strong possibility starting Feb. 1, due to anemic tax revenue, many school districts built enough of a cushion into their budgets to absorb most of the blow.
Last-minute language inserted into a law passed in June forbade schools from building a budget that anticipated a crisis with revenue falling short of projections. In addition, AB 114, backed by teacher unions, prohibited districts from laying off teachers in anticipation of midyear cuts.
But now Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor estimates state revenues will fall $3.7 billion short of projections.
That will put some teetering districts into more distress. "The state took them right out to the edge and left them with no safety nets," said Ron Bennett, president and CEO of School Services of California, which advises many of the state's 1,000 school districts.
But most districts detoured around the law. Distrusting what they saw as Gov. Jerry Brown's overly rosy revenue predictions, they cited other reasons for fattening their reserves and built flexibility into their 2011-12 budgets. That happened in both large school districts like San Jose Unified, East Side Union, Oakland Unified, Mt. Diablo Unified, all with more than 20,000 students, as well as smaller ones like San Mateo Union High School District and Alameda Unified.
Come Feb. 1, they and other schools will dip into reserves.
Not all districts constructed a "be prepared" budget. Among the most prominent, San Diego Unified now faces having to seek a state loan to stay solvent.
Cuts aren't the only financial crisis facing districts.
"The real elephant in the living room is cash," said Kenneth Shelton, chief business officer of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. The state is deferring payments of $9.44 billion, or 39 percent of the total that it owes K-12 schools, until next fiscal year. In addition, the state has pushed back other payments by several months. That leaves some districts with a cash-flow problem, unable to meet payroll.
Like many school districts, Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose is taking out short-term loans and also borrowing on the market. The district also is one of the few planning contingency furloughs, depending on the depth of the state's midyear cuts. If state estimates prove accurate, Franklin-McKinley will cut short its school year by three days, Superintendent John Porter said.
Across the state, if $3.7 billion is cut, "there will not be a single district that doesn't have to do some kind of cutting," said Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations and Advocacy, another firm advising school districts.
And while budget-cutting may seem old hat to school officials, they're worried not only about staying solvent, but also about lasting damage to education.
"Unfortunately, the Legislature in Sacramento seems to come up with ideas every once in a while, and always leaves it to us at the local level to do the dirty work," said Porter, referring to each California school district having to negotiate with its labor unions for furloughs. "I wish they'd have the courage to say, 'We can only afford to operate school 165 days.' "
The Mt. Diablo district has proposed identifying up to seven dates, depending on midyear cuts, as possible furlough days to be taken away from the normal 180-day school year.
"It is unfortunate that the state budget crisis has put districts throughout the state in the position to need to reduce school days in order to balance our budgets," Superintendent Steven Lawrence said. "If we expect our children to compete both nationally and globally the state needs to fund education at a level that allows us to expand educational opportunities, not reduce them."
Staff writers Theresa Harrington and Katy Murphy contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775.
per student, based on an estimated $3.7 billion revenue shortfall. Many large districts have already been preparing for cuts.