Budget cuts force school sacrifices

Peninsula school districts are preparing for nasty cuts in state funding by weighing a number of equally nasty fixes, from cutting teachers to raising taxes.

Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed 2008-09 budget, schools would lose roughly $800 per student in the 2008-09 school year — more than $4 billion statewide, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said. California’sprojected deficit rose last week from $14.5 billion to $16 billion, leaving education leaders wary that schools could lose even more by the time school officials have to draw up budgets in June.

“The governor’s budget is unconscionable. It’s hurting the future of our children,” said Shirley Martin, superintendent of the Millbrae School District. Martin would not name the district’s projected shortfall because she expects it to grow before a state budget is finalized.

Many districts are already taking a hard look at cutting teachers and staff, while others wait until June budget-setting sessions to name which programs and jobs could be cut. State law requires districts to issue pink slips by March 15.

Leaders in the San Mateo-Foster City School District, projecting a $4.5 million loss next year, expect to issue 25 pink slips, spokeswoman Joan Rosas said. In the South San Francisco Unified School District, which faces $5.5 million in losses, officials have halted overtime pay and are examining a hiring freeze, Superintendent Barbara Olds said.

At least three other districts in the county — Jefferson Elementary, Pacifica and Millbrae — are looking at raising local funds through parcel taxes. While Millbrae and Jefferson haven’t committed to a ballot measure yet, Pacifica voters will get their say on a $96-per-parcel proposal on June 3.

“We can no longer fully depend on state revenue,” said Enrique Navas, chief business officer with the Jefferson Elementary School District. “We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Millbrae and Redwood City school district leaders said they are weighing their options.

“We’re still assessing whether we can cut the budget without reducing teachers,” said Raul Parungao, chief business officer for the Redwood City School District.

While Redwood City could lose $6.2 million, its leaders plan to soften the blow by pulling about $1.8 million from reserves. California requires school districts to maintain reserves equaling 3 percent of their total budget; Redwood City’s school board upped its requirement to a 6 percent reserve.

State officials such as O’Connell hope to protect education funding by convincing Schwarzenegger to protect Proposition 98, which voters enacted in 1988 to ensure that a minimum of 39 percent of state spending — with annual adjustments based on enrollment and state economic health — goes toward education.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

Housing-market crisis affecting schools funded by property taxes

While school districts receiving checks from the state will bear the brunt of next year’s cuts, those that receive money directly from property taxes aren’t exactly facing a cakewalk.

The same housing-market crisis that has put California $16 billion in the hole has also squeezed local property taxes, threatening districts that rely on them.

County assessors initially projected districts’ property-tax revenues would rise 5.75 percent in 2008-09. Now, they’re predicting increases closer to 2.5 percent or 3 percent, said Pat Gemma, superintendent of the Sequoia High School District.

For districts such as Sequoia, “property taxes are our bread and butter — they’re the lion’s share of our revenue,” Gemma said.

And, since each percentage point equals $700,000 for the district, leaders face anywhere from $1.9 million to $2.3 million in losses. Already officials are looking at shuffling some administrators and freezing salary increases, Gemma said.

In the San Mateo Union High School District, which relies on property taxes, officials are still waiting to see where the chips fall, Superintendent David Miller said.

However, just about any shortfall willmean cutting staff in some way.

“When you think about the cost of employees taking up 85 percent of a budget, I don’t know how the schools are going to do it,” Miller said. “Class-size reduction [which keeps classes smaller] is clearly in jeopardy.”

Gemma agreed. “If we only have a 3 percent increase in property taxes, not only will it be impossible to give raises, but we’ll have to make cuts,” he said.

— Beth Winegarner

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