California Districts Face Grim Budget Times

By Naomi Dillon

As California legislators worked to resolve a $42 billion budget gap earlier this year, Jack O’Connell used a four-letter word to describe his state’s financial situation—ugly.

The state superintendent was far more eloquent once the gap—which includes the rest of this fiscal year as well as 2009-10—was resolved in late February. Legislators opted for a combination of tax increases, deep cuts in services, and loans, with schools and community colleges taking the largest hit.

“While the state budget agreement resolves the massive state shortfall,” O’Connell said after the legislature finished months of protracted negotiations over the gap, “we must recognize that part of the solution essentially transfers our state cash flow problem to local schools and districts, and these cuts will impact our students.”

For the state’s school districts, already accustomed to doing more with less, the question becomes: How much more can we take?

“When you’re running this lean you’re not going to be able to make cuts that go unnoticed,” says Julie Hatchel, chief communications officer for the Capistrano Unified School District.

With 52,000 students, Capistrano is the second largest school district and the largest employer in Orange County. At least it was last spring, before the district eliminated 156 non-classroom positions, chopped its transportation department by 70 percent, and froze salary increases for the next two years.

Funding for schools and community colleges, which account for almost half of all state spending, was cut by $8.4 billion, prompting the California Teachers Association to predict increased class sizes, thousands of layoffs, and the elimination of programs. However, even O’Connell acknowledged that the end result could have been much worse; funding was maintained to continue smaller class sizes in grades K-3, and school districts received more flexibility in how they spend money previously geared for specific programs.

“The painful budget process at our state and local school district level calls out for reform of California’s dysfunctional budgeting process,” O’Connell says. “It is time for a sincere and frank conversation about reform.”

But will that conversation bear fruit and, more important, a lasting solution?

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