Valley schools face more uncertainty if Gov. Brown's tax plan fails

The Fresno BeeJanuary 6, 2012 

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal offers little reassurance to California's public schools, community colleges and universities, because their funding hinges on whether voters approve a $6.9 billion tax plan.

Education funding for 2012-13 is tied to a proposal for a half-cent sales-tax hike and increased levies on the wealthy that Brown wants to put on the November ballot.

"There is a lot riding on it," said Paul Hefner, director of communications for the Department of Education. "It's our only chance to turn the tide against all the cuts that happen year after year."

If the tax plan fails, it will trigger $4.8 billion in cuts to K-12 and community colleges, and another $200 million each in cuts to the California State University and University of California systems. Officials warn that the school year would shrink by up to one month and community colleges would have to slash courses, services and teachers. Thousands of students would lose access to Cal Grants, putting higher education even further out of reach.

Education officials and student leaders offered tepid appreciation Friday for the governor's efforts to reinstate some of the funding that lawmakers have siphoned off over recent years.

But tying education funding to a tax plan that some say doesn't have a chance of passing only leaves students and educators uncertain about how much money they would have -- and how much they could lose.

"This will be the second year in a row that we would be on needles and pins over a midyear trigger cut," said Dan Troy, vice chancellor for fiscal policy of the California Community College system. "The uncertainty is very hard to live with."

Schools and universities still are struggling to regain their footing after Brown announced $1 billion in cuts last month. The cuts -- triggered when the state didn't meet revenue projections for the year -- forced a $10 per-unit fee increase at community colleges.

Under Brown's plan, about $440 million of the estimated $4.8 billion in revenue from new taxes would go to community colleges, with the rest slated for K-12. Without the money, community colleges would have to cut back counseling, advising services and course sections, Troy said. Courses already have been cut by as much as 15% at some colleges. Layoffs and salary cuts would also be likely, he said.

Should Brown's tax plan fail, the next round of trigger cuts would come Jan. 1, 2013.

For K-12 school districts that already have the most crowded classrooms in the country and have laid off thousands of employees, the importance of new revenue can't be overstated, officials said.

Without it, Fresno County schools would have to increase already-bulging classes and shorten the school year by as much as four weeks, said county schools Superintendent Larry Powell. He said some schools would be open as few as 160 days, down from 180.

"There's no place left to cut but school days," Powell said. "It's a devastating position to be in."

Powell is one of several education leaders who said they support Brown's tax plan -- and will lobby for its passage -- but don't think voters will be interested.

"How do you go to the public and say, give us more taxes?" Powell asked. "They don't trust the government to do what they say they'll do."

Brown's budget proposal also would shift the cost of busing from the state to districts and reallocate money previously used for class-size reduction.

Piling more kids into classrooms will make classes unmanageable and will exacerbate problems like dropouts and truancy, said Fresno Unified School District trustee Larry Moore. He said the average student-to-teacher ratio in the district's K-3 classes is 30-to-1. A few years ago it was 20-to-1.

"Kids fall through the cracks, because [teachers] only have so much time," Moore said. "The damage we do on our children in my judgment is irreversible."

On top of that, community colleges and schools would have to pay debt service on bonds. The state currently pays out of its general fund, but trigger cuts would transfer the burden to schools. Community colleges owe about $200 million to $300 million in bonds, while K-12 schools have a debt burden of $2.6 billion, officials said.

The CSU and UC systems had asked the state for increased funding to help recover from $750 million in cuts to each system last year. The governor's proposal, however, didn't offer any increase.

If the January 2013 trigger cuts occur, state funding for CSU would drop to $1.8 billion, the lowest since the 1996-97 school year. CSU has 412,000 students today -- about 95,000 more than in 1996. In 2007-08, CSU received almost $3 billion from the state.

College students also would have fewer opportunities to get state grants. Brown's proposed budget would decrease the size of Cal Grant awards for students at private and for-profit colleges. Brown also wants to increase the grade-point average requirement from 2.0 to 2.75 to qualify for some types of Cal Grants, and from 3.0 to 3.25 for other grants. Transfer students will have to have a 2.75 GPA, rather than a 2.4, to receive grants.

Community college students -- often low-income and with low GPAs -- would be hit hardest, said Paige Marlatt Dorr, spokeswoman for the college system.

The new rules would save the state $302 million and affect tens of thousands of students. Currently 330,000 students receive Cal Grants, and demand for grants has increased about 20% since the economy tanked, said Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of California Student Aid Commission.

Brown's proposal drew criticism from leaders at the California State Student Association, who said cutting financial aid would disproportionately hurt students of color and first-generation students.

Miles Nevin, executive director of the student group, said he expects the proposal would add fuel to the recent firestorm of campus protests. Already, a protest rally is planned for March 5, led by a coalition of CSU, UC and community college students.

Said Nevin, "You're going to see more action, both statewide and on individual campuses."

The reporter can be reached at hsomerville@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6412.

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