Fresno Unified's top administrators laid out a spending plan for the millions the district would get if voters approve Proposition 30 on the November ballot.
The biggest winner: Preschool classes, where participation would almost double.
"There's a possibility on Nov. 6 we could be talking about a dramatically different school district for years to come," Superintendent Michael Hanson said Wednesday at a special school board budget workshop.
Under Prop. 30, Fresno Unified would have $17.5 million to spend on new educational programs and would avoid $11.5 million in cuts, Hanson said. He also expressed urgency about getting the district's spending plans in front of voters well before the election.
The proposition, an initiative pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would raise sales taxes by a quarter of a cent for four years and would increase income taxes on those with higher incomes for seven years. If it fails, public schools face $5 billion in cuts, Brown has said.
School board members were generally supportive of the plans, but some questioned spending on new programs when so many others have been cut in past years.
During the two-hour workshop, Hanson concentrated on passage of the proposition and how the district could spend the extra funds. He put off discussion of a potential for budget cuts, saying that should the proposition fail, those talks would come in January for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
The superintendent's proposals for spending the $17.5 million include:
$7.4 million for preschool programs to increase participation from 42% of district children to 80%.
$4.4 million to add programs at middle schools to allow students to have more elective choices.
$2 million to expand the district's music program with five to seven teachers in elementary schools and to replace instruments.
Among other funding recommendations was $300,000 for bus transportation to reduce the maximum walking distance for middle-school students from two miles to 11/2 miles.
Board members will discuss the proposals at their next meeting on Sept. 12.
Most of the discussion Wednesday centered on expanding the number of 4-year-olds in preschool programs. Hanson said the expansion would add 55 classrooms and be phased in over a couple of years. It would add 2,300 students to the program. Currently, there are 1,500 preschool students in district programs and 1,024 in Head Start programs, he said.
The district currently has transitional kindergarten for children turning 5 years old at 35 schools and plans to add classes at the remaining 30 schools next year, Deputy Superintendent Ruth Quinto said.
Board members expressed overall support for expanding preschool, for adding class time and choices at middle schools, and for adding elementary teachers to the music program. The special meeting drew a full board, including Tony Vang, who has been criticized for absences at recent meetings.
But while supportive of the district's recommendations, board members said they wanted information about cuts that have been made in the past seven years and the cost for restoring some of them before deciding on new programs. Fresno Unified has cut $130 million from its budget in recent years.
Board member Larry Moore said he was skeptical of spending money for new programs when the district has made substantial cuts to regular education programs. One concern was cuts that increased the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade classes.
"Shouldn't we try to restore some of those cuts?" Moore said.
Board member Carol Mills said expanding preschool was on her "wish list" of programs for the Prop. 30 money. But, she said, the district should provide members with a cost for restoring class-size reductions or, as an alternative, the cost for teacher aides in the classes.
Janet Ryan said she could support restoring programs, but only if they improve student achievement. Smaller class sizes in California have not had great results compared to preschool programs, she said.
"Districts that have poured resources into preschools are doing much better than ours," she said.
Hanson said expanding preschool is a high priority because it will pay off more in the long run with higher student achievement.
Mills said spending money for bus transportation to reduce walking distances is a safety issue and said the recommendation to reduce the distance for middle school students from 2 miles to 11/2 miles did not go far enough. She asked the district for a cost for shortening the walking distance to 1 mile for middle and high school students.
On Wednesday, Hanson proposed the budget be adopted on Sept. 26 so the district can let the public know how Prop. 30 money would be spent.
The school board has made tough decisions in the past seven years, and Prop. 30 is an opportunity for new investments, he said.
"That has to be a story our entire city and Valley floor hears about," he said.
Board President Valerie Davis said she's hopeful: "Now it's time for these kids to have more funds coming to them."