School Cuts Would Mostly Target Fluff

DEC. 17, 2010

By WAYNE LUSVARDI

At a state budget forum held on Dec. 14 in Los Angeles, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown and re-elected state Treasurer Bill Lockyer indicated that they are going to move quickly to significantly cut state funding for K-12 public schools given a “shocking” $28 billion state budget deficit, about $8 billion more than projected by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

This signals the next showdown over taxes in California is going to be at the local level as school districts are going to try and shift operating costs to local property taxpayers via a parcel tax.

Lockyer stated that unless one lived in Mendocino County “there is going to be cuts.”  What Lockyer was referring to is that Mendocino County is the only county where the school districts mostly depend on local property taxes instead of state funding.  In other words, what Brown is indicating is that given the state’s dire budget circumstances he wants to shift maybe about 25 percent of school operating costs back onto local school districts via parcel taxes.  This would be sort of like eliminating 25 percent of Prop. 13.

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown said: “we’re living in fantasyland” when it comes to the budget deficit.  Brown is apparently right as California public school budget deficits have been offset by federal Stimulus dollars since 2008.  But there are no more stimulus fantasy dollars.  The reality that is dawning on politicians and school district officials is that the recession is not just another economic cycle but apparently a prolonged deflation.

Lockyer repeated Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s budget mantra that communities are going to have to choose between “lower services or higher taxes.” But beyond all the hysteria reported in the media, are local school districts really unable to absorb more cuts when there are other unmentioned options?

Consider the following:

1.    By bumping the average class size from 21 to just 24 students some $6.8 billion could be saved, reflecting 19 percent of the entire K-12 state education budget allocation.

2.    The Legislative Analyst’s Office’s report of May 2010 recommended that further categorical school programs be deregulated which could protect funding for core teaching.  In 2009, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill ABX-4-2 that deregulated 40 categorical programs allowing 18.355 percent of the unrestricted portion of local school budgets to be absorbed without cutting core teachers or programs.  This resulted in a $4.529 billion reduction in the state budget for K-12 education.

3.    The LAO study identified another 18 categorical programs that could be deregulated for a cost savings of $7.473 billion.  The term “categorical” programs is a euphemism for non-essential jobs protected by politicians to buy votes by locking them into the funding formula for public schools.

The total of just the above three items is $18.8 billion.  In other words a whopping 42 percent of the $44.6 billion state K-12 education budget prior to 2010 was being spent on ancillary jobs programs and padded core classroom teacher jobs as a result of small class sizes.

Those looking at a parcel tax fix to the problem are facing the fact that 89 percent of proposed school parcel taxes on the Nov. 2 ballot were defeated.  Only Berkeley Unified and Fremont-Alameda Unified School Districts were able to pass parcel taxes.  But only a $53 per parcel tax per year was passed in Alameda, not enough to meet the huge impending shortfall.

The reality about parcel taxes is that from 2001 to 2009 only 83 school districts passed parcel taxes out of 132 parcel tax elections and 980 total school districts in California.  66 of those school districts were in northern California, mainly in small school districts located in wealthy communities.  Only 7 parcel taxes have passed in southern California.  The grand total of all parcel tax revenues in the state is reported to be about $250 million, or about a half-percent of the entire K-12 education budget for 2009.

A parcel tax is a redundant property tax.  However, unlike a property tax, which fluctuates on the assessed value of each property, a parcel tax is a flat tax that stays fixed no matter what if property values decline.  Thus, parcel taxes are especially unpopular in a recession.

Local school districts have had two years to prepare for the situation they are now facing and are probably unrealistic to see parcel taxes as a solution.  Even if the voting threshold for parcel tax for school operating costs could magically be lowered from 66 percent to 55 percent as sought by public school activists, the amount of the tax burden that would have to be levied on each property (possibly $1,000 to $3,000 per year) would likely be unpopular in a recession; let alone it would probably take two years or more before such tax revenues could be realized.

If voters also realize that most school districts can still operate core functions despite the additional impending cutbacks, parcel taxes will be even less popular. But the media continues to only report those voices claiming that further cutbacks would decimate public schools.  They would decimate public schools, but mainly the ancillary programs such as money for K-3 class size reductions, after school programs, busing, child nutrition, adults in correctional facilities and county oversight.  This is the level of “services” that Gov.-elect Brown and Treasurer Bill Lockyer are apparently talking about being cut, not core educational services.  What is not being reported is that school budget cuts would mainly be to “non-essential” school services.

To get public schools out of a budget fantasyland, parents are going to have to sort out the media reported hysteria from the reality at hand.  This is perhaps why parents are seeing the handwriting on the wall and are using the new state “trigger law” in Compton, California to demand that their children be moved into charter schools that are much cheaper to operate because they don’t have all those categorical programs.

Bernie Rhinerson of the San Diego Unified School District was quoted in the L.A. Times: “We can’t take any more cuts.  You really need to [look] elsewhere, we are at the cliff.”  While that budget cliff may be as long as the 840-mile California coastline, it may be only a six inch deep step into a charter school.

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  1. Bruce Ross
    Bruce Ross 17 December, 2010, 17:23

    Regarding Point 1:

    It is very difficult to see how it is mathematically plausible that a 14 percent increase in average class sizes (the equivalent of a 12.5 percent cut in teacher employment) could result in a 19 percent budget savings. It couldn’t even save 12.5 percent, as there are fixed costs in running any institution.

    Regarding Point 3:

    Categorical flexibility is obviously a good idea, and I won’t argue about what’s essential and what’s not, but the most prominent result of categorical flexibility in my neck of the woods is a sharp reduction in vocational education — which few think of as a frill, though your mileage may vary.

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  2. ggswede
    ggswede 18 December, 2010, 09:35

    I don’t know where they get their figures ? The school district where my grandson goes,has 35 kids in his 4th grade classroom.And the district will be closing two elementary schools shortly.One of those schools will be converted to k-8 charter school.The other elementary schools ,already are beyond the 24 kid level.My only suggestion,is if you can afford it ,go private school.

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  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 18 December, 2010, 11:31

    ggswede
    The numbers come from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office and the links are provided in the article. The LAO’s report is difficult to understand but well worth trying.

    Yes, I am aware that many school districts are in the process of closing surplus school sites (Pasadena where I live). There isn’t much choice. The State is broke with no likely economic bounce back on the near term horizon. The U.S. is also broke. We’re going to have to deregulate and simplify our bureaucracies.

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  4. Susana K
    Susana K 21 December, 2010, 11:22

    A member of a local political organization to which I belong is a high school chemistry teacher. The husband of a friend just retired as a HS math teacher, totally fed up with a system that no longer educates. Both these guys have the same complaint: the school system in LA County, and presumably in other populous counties, has a huge budgetary problem in reteaching courses, time and time again, at a cost calculated by the chem teacher (JS) of about $536 per student, per repeat. Both these teachers report that the problems include lack of parental involvement and oversight and students who just make no effort to study and pass.

    JS has extrapolated data and calculated that in math and science alone, LAUSD is spending about $147.5 million attempting to teach enrollees (I won’t dignify them by calling them students) who refuse to try and end up with D and F grades. Some of these failing enrollees repeat a required course as many as 4 times.

    JS was unable to find comparable figures for failure and reteach rates for English and social studies but suggests that failure rates are comparable, based on comments from other faculty members. If this is true, LAUSD alone is wasting about $300 million per year on kids who don’t care enough about their education to even try to pass their required work. Now triple that sum, to account for San Diego, San Francisco and the rest of the state. While SD and SF are both smaller districts, they likely have similar fail rates, and we can allow for all other districts in the state that likely have the same problem but on a smaller scale. Do the math and the state is spending about $1 Billion (with a B), and maybe more, pandering to lazy, uncommitted enrollees who don’t care and don’t try.

    JS proposes assessing the costs of reteaching to the parents—after CAREFULLY culling out students whose failures are related to factors beyond their control, such as language difficulties, genuine learning disabilities, or perhaps illness or accident resulting in long absences. These latter students would not be penalized.

    Charging the parents for allowing their kids to fail would have a number of effects. It would wake a lot of them up and get them involved. It would reduce the number of enrollees who just take up class time. And it would save a lot of money, in same cases eliminating the need for extra parcel taxes and other “soak-the-taxpayer” schemes to try to squeeze blood from the proverbial turnip.

    There are legal problems inherent in enacting such a measure, but clearly, our Founders and those who wrote the state’s education code did not intend to provide “free” education for repeat upon repeat! The code requires the state to make courses available to all students without charge, but section 48908 also requires that the students make an effort to comply:

    “All pupils shall comply with the regulations, pursue the required course of study, and submit to the authority of the teachers of the schools.”

    This section creates a contractual exchange whereby the student is required to make reasonable effort to study, so students who don’t try are in violation and do not deserve unlimited free repeats.

    This is a proposal that should get some serious attention at the state level.

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