Education

Schools face two budget options - bad, worse

Budget preparations are always hard, but this year they're doubly so for school district administrators who have to craft two plans.

One plan assumes California voters will agree in June to extend several taxes, and the other is in case they don't.

Without the extensions, state budget revenues will drop by an additional $2.3 billion, or about 4.7%, and K-12 education -- which Gov. Jerry Brown has tried to shield from budget cuts so far -- will be hit hard.

The predictions from area district superintendents range from dire to discouraging:

-- Fresno Unified K-3 class sizes could grow from 24 to 30 students, employee wages could drop by 5%, the school year could shrink by five days and jobs and programs could be cut by $25 million. And, even after all that, the district would still need to cut an additional $7 million to balance its budget, Superintendent Michael Hanson said.

-- Central Unified likely will offer early retirement incentives again this year. "We are combing through the budget every day to find dollars we haven't expended," said Superintendent Michael Berg. "We've really done the heavy lifting over the past few years, so right now, we are ... not panicking."

-- Clovis Unified is preparing for a $16 million budget deficit if the tax measures aren't extended, said Assistant Superintendent Michael Johnston. Budget reserves and $4 million in cuts will bridge the gap, he said. The goal is to keep educational programs and services intact despite state budget fluctuations.

Whether school budgets go from bad to worse will be decided by voters in a special June election.

California legislators agreed in February 2009 to add a penny to the state's sales tax, add 0.25% to all personal income-tax rates, significantly boost license fees and suspend child tax credits. But four months later, voters refused to extend the tax increases beyond their July 1, 2011, expiration.

If voters OK the tax extensions, Fresno Unified still will have to cut $27 million from its annual budget of about $612 million, Hanson said. That's on top of $85 million in cuts over the past three years.

State budget cuts hit Fresno Unified harder than some other local districts because of its declining enrollments.

If the tax extensions are defeated, the district's budget shortfall will grow to $71 million, Hanson said.

"This is going to be a decision about whether we truly want a future for our state," he said. "There are dire fiscal challenges."

In a report released this week on how budget cuts have affected schools, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office said the result has been bigger class sizes, employee layoffs and furloughs and shorter school years.

Extending the taxes would keep yearly per-pupil funding at $5,239, the same as last year. But if the measures fail, yearly funding would shrink to about $4,890 -- the lowest in more than 10 years.

California Teachers Association, which represents 325,000 employees in California schools, endorsed Brown's budget plan this week but has not developed a strategy to seek voter support, said Sandra Jackson, a CTA spokeswoman.

In the past two years, about 30,000 teachers have been laid off in California, she said.

"You don't want to scare anybody, but we have to make our kids a priority, and that's going to mean making sacrifices so our kids have what they need for their futures and the future of the state," she said.

Layoff notices are inevitable again this year. Many school districts, facing a March 15 deadline to send out notices, are preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Districts typically hand out more notices of layoffs than they expect to need, said Larry Powell, Fresno County schools superintendent.

"You keep your flexibility," he said. "But how do you manage morale in the meantime?"

Many districts are planning to cut temporary and probationary teachers, reduce central office staff and propose early retirement packages.

And school employees who don't get a layoff notice in March -- including tenured teachers -- could still wind up jobless in August.

If legislators approve a 2011-12 budget with drastically reduced funding for K-12 education by mid-July, state law allows districts to send out layoff notices, said Rich Smith, assistant superintendent for Sanger Unified.

Smith said Sanger, which trimmed its budget shortfall this year by cutting a week from the school year, expects to weather the latest budget blows. But he said some districts may have no choice but to fire employees this summer.

"It would be devastating to teachers and programs ... imagine massive statewide teacher layoffs less than a month before the opening of school," he said. "It would be ugly, very ugly."

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