Wednesday, June 29, 2011

At Times It Can Be Heartbreaking

“These are bills that Congress ran up.  The money has been spent.  The obligations have been made. …This is not a situation where Congress is going to say OK we wont buy this car and won’t take this vacation.  They took the vacation.  They bought the car.  And now they’re saying may be we won’t have to pay.”
President Obama – federal debt ceiling June 29, 2011

 “This budget means another year with California’s schools on financial life support. The risk of $1.75 billion in mid-year reductions, as well as $2.1 billion in added deferrals, will force some districts to make cuts that will harm our students and their schools.”
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson June 28, 2011

Being a public servant by serving on the board of a local school district is an honor. At times it can be heartbreaking.

California has been projecting a $9 to $10 billion-dollar deficit in the state budget. Our esteemed state politicians who cannot pass a budget without the threat of their pay being withheld agreed to an overly optimistic one. Somehow they are now projecting that the deficit will not be so bad, but reserve the right to revise later if they are wrong. School districts need to submit their budget based on that budget by July 1st, except their three-year budgets need to balance.

Imagine being broke with a $9.00 bill that has to be paid and someone owes you $9.00. Imagine this same person explaining that they only owe you $4.00 because they are hoping that someone else might give them five dollars. Worse, they reserve the right to take an additional dollar from you if necessary. But you still need to pay the $9.00 bill. That is the condition of the California state budget and how it affects school districts.

K-12 education makes up about 30% of the state budget. In the past it has taken 60% of the cuts. Even if there are no further cuts to education, a downward revision of the state budget will ruin the tight budgets of local school districts.

Local school districts receive funding from three sources: federal, state, and local. On average for the past ten years school districts receive 79% of their funding from the state, 13% from the federal government, and 8% locally. The percentages change according to neighborhoods. For example, a school district in an affluent neighborhood, such as, Beverly Hills Unified may receive 70% of their funding from the state, 4% from the federal government, and 26% locally. A school district in a much less affluent area, such as, Adelanto Elementary School District, may receive 86% of their funding from the state, 10% from the federal government, and only 4% locally. Between the two districts and compared to the state average, Adelanto School District is more dependent on state funding.

Then there are two types of funding: restricted and unrestricted. Restricted funds are monies with stipulations and regulations attached to them. In other words, they have to be spent only on what they have been designated to fund. Unrestricted funds (a.k.a. general fund) allow more flexibility. Most of the general fund is designated for salaries and benefits. In the Adelanto School District 81% of the general fund is designated for salaries and benefits.

Now we must include unfunded or underfunded mandated costs. Unfunded mandated costs are federal or state required programs that receive no funding for them. Districts are required to comply with these mandates but must pay for them from the general fund. Special education, English as a Second Language (ESL), and refitting school buses to be better for the environment are examples of unfunded or underfunded mandated costs. In the Adelanto School District, they encroach about 13% of the general fund. The remaining 6% of the general fund is used to pay for utilities, after-school programs, enrichment, and such other purposes.

It is clear that cuts in education and reduction of overly optimistic state budgets hurt the quality of education for our students. California already has the worse teacher to student ratio in the nation. California already spends less per student than other states. California’s state budget has a $9 to $10 billion-dollar deficit. The Adelanto School District, in turn, will have almost a $1.9 million dollar deficit next school year. This deficit is projected even though there have been major cuts to the budget. Good hard working employees are paying the price of this ruined economy through unpaid furloughs, reduction of hours, and layoffs. No one is exempt; teachers, librarians, clerks, aides, counselors, administrators – no one.

It gets worse. California solves its cash flow problem by passing it on to local school districts. To keep cash on hand, the state withholds the release of funds to the counties that are to be distributed to the local school districts. The local school districts must then borrow money to make payroll. The Adelanto School District is projecting a need to borrow $9 million dollars. It will cover its deficit and have a cushion to make payroll when the state does not release funds.

The federal job stimulus plan is meant to help states float through the economic crisis with as few layoffs as possible. This one time use it or lose it grant is not meant to supplant state funding. In other words, the influx of cash from the federal government with its own deficit problem cannot be deposited in a bank account to earn interest. It cannot be used to release funds from one program to be used on another program. It can only be used for purposes like buying back unpaid furloughs days and returning laid off employees. But it is not enough to prevent furloughs and all lay offs. And it can only be used once.

The choices presented to school board members and employees are painful. Agree to unpaid furlough days and reduction of pay for fewer or no layoffs, or agree to no furlough days and reduction of pay at the cost of more layoffs.

The same politicians at the state and federal level that cannot manage a budget and stoop to push their agenda at the cost of a child’s education and a public employee’s job – want to dictate to educators on how to teach a child. Honestly, do we really need to refit school buses to be better for the environment during an economic crisis? Has No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top worked to improve education?

I am promoting a radical change in education. Different from public charter schools, we need to privatize public education without the use of public funds and without charging tuition. We now have the technology to create hybrid online schools with learning centers that can better meet the needs of students. I would like to explore that idea. Finding the right combination of instruction, management, and structure for sustainable funding and accreditation will be a challenge, but I no longer want to look to politicians for solutions to problems they helped to create.

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