Schools must prepare for budget ax

Californians should already realize that the state’s coming $14.5 billion budget deficit is going to be ugly. But now the specifics of how that ugliness will hit home are emerging in greater detail. A current round of bad news involves the regressive options facing Bay Area school districts under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed $4.4 billion cuts in education spending — a 10 percent reduction from most K-14 funding sources.

Of course the final amount of educational cuts depends on what survives the legislative tug of war among competing interest groups. Any substantial reductions will need to survive fierce resistance from the politically connected school unions and associations of administrators and school boards. Some 90 percent of education spending goes to salaries, many of which are protected by contracts.

In another complicating factor, the kind of major cuts Schwarzenegger is talking about will require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers to suspend the Proposition 98 minimum funding guarantees. Passed by the voters in 1988, Proposition 98 established a complex formula of calculating minimum allocations for K-12 school districts and community colleges. It was used for the only time in 2004, and stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition that was instrumental in defeating the governor’s fiscal ballot measures the following year.

Education receives the lion’s share of general fund spending. Schools this year are getting $41 billion of the state’s $100 billion general fund. The inevitable result is that when major deficits strike California, the budget must get balanced and any attempt to do so must heavily involve the already struggling school system. It does produce genuine hardships on the local classroom level; but if cuts cannot be spread in fair proportion throughout all state operations the equally unpopular alternative is to raise taxes.

So despite the formidable barriers to slashing education spending, California schools are virtually guaranteed to undergo significant cuts in the coming 18 months, even if final losses do not total 10 percent. As soon as possible, the school districts should be making detailed plans to cope with their bare-bones budgets. No option can be left off the table.

The Board of Education on Tuesday approved putting aside approximately $6 million of $45 million it is set to receive next year from Proposition H — the voter-approved school set-aside from The City general fund — to alleviate the worst pressure from upcoming cuts of up to $40 million. The $6 million reserve would come from Proposition H funds designated for teacher training and coaching, technology upgrades, pre-kindergarten literacy programs and student nutrition support.

Hard choices on this level will be repeated throughout California public life in coming months. The 24 autonomous school districts of adjacent San Mateo County are not as fortunate in having comparable fiscal flexibility, so they will need bold creativity in managing their reduced resources.

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