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Money Inequity Leaves Schools Tough Choices

March 12, 1990|TONY MARCANO and ALLISON SAMUELS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Nearly 20 years ago, lawmakers decided that basing school funding on local property values was unfair. The system, they argued, gave preferential treatment to children who happened to live in wealthy areas and penalized other children just because their parents weren't rich.

New laws were passed to change the system, and they worked--but at a price. The lawmakers, in effect, won short-term victories by mortgaging the future for schoolchildren, say school business managers.

Now the mortgage is due, and the payments are going to be astronomical, the business managers say.

"School districts across California are in for a hard time," said John Perry, assistant superintendent for business services in the Orange Unified School District.

Because of a complicated system of funding based on what the business managers say is now-archaic legislation dating back to 1972, schools in Orange County receive vastly varying amounts in state education aid. In some cases, the gaps represent millions of dollars that could be used for critically needed--and costly--programs, such as bilingual education and computer instruction.

The financial problems have manifested themselves in sharp cutbacks, with the elimination of programs and personnel once thought essential to a quality learning environment, such as music classes, art courses and school nurses.

And despite news of state increases in education aid and development of new, innovative methods of raising funds by district business managers, hard times will continue for the foreseeable future.

With more than 170,000 new students expected to flood California schools next year, coupled with teachers' demands for higher salaries and the increased cost of school operations, all of the education money in the state budget--including an expected 8% increase--is already accounted for, Perry said. That means finding new ways of making money, or simply not spending any more money. That, in turn, means more cuts in programs already pared to the bone.

"A number of districts in the past have gone through those steps when there's been a shortfall in state funds," said Terry Bustillos, an administrator in the Orange County superintendent of schools office. "They really just have to tighten the belt. Unfortunately, that will have an impact on what students can do in the classroom."

According to district business managers, the impact is that many districts will be able to offer little beyond the state-mandated "base program" of courses. Bustillos said merely maintaining those programs will cost each district about 5% of an 8% increase in education funding in the proposed state budget. Gov. George Deukmejian has proposed setting aside 3% of the increase to maintain current programs.

Bustillos added that with another 4% already set aside to handle the hundreds of thousands of new students expected to enter school systems next year, and even more earmarked for class-size reduction, the budget "increase" actually amounts to a decrease.

Perry said the total amounts to about a 2% shortfall, or $19 per pupil. With millions of pupils statewide, the gap could be staggering, he said. For example, the Santa Ana Unified School District, which has an enrollment of about 43,000 students, could, at $19 per pupil, face an $817,000 drop in funding compared to last year.

"It's going to be yet another year where we're going to have to look at all of our programs and decide where we're going to cut back," Perry said.

"We're down to things like a school nurse," added Russell Barrios, a member of the Orange Unified School District Board of Trustees. "Everybody remembers a school nurse in elementary school. We've got maybe five for our entire district of 25,000 students."

For the parents, students, teachers and administrators of Orange County schools, such cutbacks are nothing new.

For more than a decade, school districts in Orange County struggled through financial difficulties mainly caused by plummeting student enrollment. Simply put, fewer students meant fewer dollars from the state.

In the Ocean View School District, which covers most of Huntington Beach, the enrollment was more than 14,000 students in the early 1970s, said James L. Jones Jr., the district's assistant superintendent for business.

"It dropped from that point down to a low last year of about 8,300," Jones said.

Under the pre-Proposition 13 system, Jones said, the district survived because, although school funding levels were based on property values, the high student enrollment kept enough funds coming in from the state. But since property values no longer have any impact on education allocations, the district has been left in a financial bind, he said.

"It's just totally flip-flopped to where now we've lost our kids, but we have this really valuable real estate all around," Jones said. "But we're not under that system now, we're under the revenue-limit-per-kid system."

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