Valley school districts counting on Prop. 30 funds

Officials see drastic cuts if tax measure is rejected.

The Fresno BeeOctober 31, 2012 

Despite fading support, area school superintendents say they still hope voters approve Proposition 30 on Tuesday to stanch the budget bleeding of the past four years.

"We're deficit spending right now," said Gustavo Balderas, superintendent at Madera Unified School District.

Valley school districts have had to dip into reserves to make up lost state money, and most have increased class sizes, cut employees and deferred maintenance. Now even tougher choices loom, they say.

If Prop. 30 doesn't pass, "it's going to be a disaster," Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Larry Powell said.

Reducing expenses would be a district-by-district decision, but Powell said cutting the school year from 180 days to 160 days could be on the table.

"Those discussions will literally start on Nov. 7 for a lot of boards who meet on Wednesday, the day after the election," Powell said. "And those decisions will have to be made by Jan. 1."

Districts will begin losing money at the beginning of the year if the proposition fails, and they will have to decide what cuts to make for the new school year, which begins July 1.

The proposition pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown would raise sales taxes by a quarter cent for four years and increase income taxes for seven years on those making $250,000 or more.

Brown has warned its failure would trigger about $5 billion in cuts to K-12 education -- about a 10% cut from the approximate $52 billion state education budget.

Fresno County schools would lose about $100 million, said Michael Johnston, assistant superintendent of business services at Clovis Unified and president of the California Association of School Business Officials.

That includes $16.5 million for Clovis Unified, $11.7 million for Visalia Unified, $29 million for Fresno Unified, $10 million for Madera Unified, $7 million for Central Unified and $5 million for Sanger Unified.

Polls have been showing that just under half of likely voters say they will vote for Prop. 30.

Opponents say there is a reason for tepid voter support.

"They don't believe it's an education tax and it's not," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "It's a tax designed to bail out the general fund and I think everybody recognizes that." It doesn't guarantee any new money to the classroom, he said, and there is nothing in the proposition that says if it fails, school funding must be cut.

Voters also are "disinclined to make California the most heavily taxed state only to perpetuate a failed education system," Coupal said.

Superintendents still express some optimism. They say Prop. 30 has a better chance of passage than Prop. 38, a rival tax initiative backed by wealthy attorney Molly Munger.

Prop. 38 would increase income taxes on almost all Californians on a sliding scale to pay for schools. It would not increase the sales tax. Prop. 38 has garnered less support than Prop. 30 among likely voters in polls.

"In any other year, I would applaud Molly Munger," said Marc Johnson, Sanger superintendent, but having dueling tax initiatives has "created a weird dynamic."

Visalia Unified Superintendent Craig Wheaton said Prop. 30 has more support among voters, but his position is "whatever mechanism stabilizes our budget, that's what we need to do for kids."

"I know voters are frustrated, taxpayers are frustrated, but I hope voters and the public really understand what is at stake for our public schools," he said.

Deciding what to cut won't be easy should Prop. 30 fail.

At Sanger Unified, for example, "any area of operation in the district where we could find a savings, we've done that," Johnson said.

The grounds and maintenance staff has been reduced so much that it's difficult to maintain buildings, he said. The district has not adopted a new textbook series in four years and struggles to replace lost or mangled schoolbooks. A popular camp for sixth-graders is gone, as are most student field trips.

But Johnson said he hears most from parents about larger class sizes. Kindergarten classes have gone from 18 students to 25. "That's seven more kids to provide focused attention to and it does make a difference," he said.

Across the Valley, larger classes have become the new normal.

At Fresno Unified, kindergarten through third grade classes have increased from an average of 20 students to 26 in kindergarten and first grade and 30 in second and third grades.

The district planned a budget that did not include Prop. 30 funds. If it passes, the district would enroll twice as many children in preschool.

In Madera, kindergarten to third grade classes average 28 students. Four years ago, the average was 24.5 children per class.

In Visalia, kindergarten through second grade classes now have 30 students -- 10 more than before budget cutbacks. About 100 teaching positions have been lost to attrition, Wheaton said.

If Prop. 30 fails, a series of meetings will be held with the public to decide what to do, he said. A reduction in the school year could be a part of the discussion.

"Everything we know and love will be on the table with a price tag."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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