School district officials in Orange County expressed guarded relief Wednesday that California's new state budget appears to provide roughly the same amount of money per student this year as last, but they were worried that it will force them to make deep cuts beginning in 1993.
To keep per-pupil funding at about the same level as last year's, the new state budget borrows money from future years and requires districts to begin paying it back in 1993-94. That prompted many local officials to sigh that while they can probably squeak through this school year, sharp cutbacks could be required in the following years.
"We were prepared for difficulty in the '92-93 school year," said James A. Fleming, superintendent of one of the county's poorest districts, Capistrano Unified. "But we had always hoped there would be light at the end of the tunnel as we look to '93-94. What the governor has done is make the tunnel darker and the light at the end dimmer."
The new budget includes a cut of about 2% in funding for a variety of special programs, such as those for home-to-school transportation, gifted students and special education. Districts were still trying to assess the impact of that cut. But Wendy Margarita, director of business services for the Orange County Department of Education, said the department relies heavily on that funding to provide countywide programs for the severely disabled.
All over the county, administrators were trying to obtain details of the budget. Most districts will need a few days to absorb its complexities and decide whether they will need to make more cuts in their already bare-bones 1992-93 budgets.
There was little good news in the final state budget for either of Orange County's four-year public universities.
UC Irvine officials had prepared for an 8% budget cut, slashing about $15 million from their $180-million state operating budget. But with the University of California taking an 11% cut in the final budget, further cuts may be passed on to each of the nine UC campuses.
At Cal State Fullerton, academic planners had anticipated a 10% drop in state funds, which led to layoffs and cuts in classes and campus services. The new budget agreement requires an 8.8% cut for the California State University system. But Fullerton and other universities last month restored more classes and rescinded some layoffs, presuming the final reduction would be no greater than 8%.
Cal State Fullerton students, however, soon will be billed an additional $186 for the fall semester to cover a 40% increase in student fees included in the final state budget.
Orange County's four community college districts, meanwhile, will hike fees on Jan. 1 for most students by 66%, from $6 to $10 a unit. News of the increase triggered a protest rally by about 100 students and teachers Wednesday at Cypress College, where some chanted, "Hell No, We Won't Pay!"
For community college students who already have bachelor's degrees, the fees will jump to $50 a unit, a 733% increase. Critics say that will fall hardest on people who have lost their jobs and have returned to community college to get retraining.
Among the K-12 schools, administrators such as David Brown of Irvine Unified fears that keeping per-pupil funding the same will amount to a cut this year. He said his district could end up with a 4% deficit because last year's per-pupil funding levels would not cover cost hikes in textbooks and supplies and such things as salary increases for teachers mandated in existing contracts.
Santa Ana Unified Supt. Rudy M. Castruita worries that the state budget's deep cuts to cities and counties will force local governments to raise utility and trash fees to ease their losses, producing higher bills for school districts.
"We're just waiting for the shoe to drop on that," Castruita said.
Santa Ana Unified adopted a $200-million 1992-93 budget that carved out $13 million in reductions, Castruita said, but it will have to reopen budget discussions and "probably make additional cuts."
Cynthia Grennan, superintendent in the Anaheim Union High School District, said she doubts that further cuts will be required. The district already had to increase its class sizes to close this year's budget gap.
The looming possibility of additional cuts worries teachers, many of whom have endured one or more years of salary freezes or pay cuts. Some fear that class sizes will rise, making their jobs more difficult.
Ruby Penner, president of the Orange Unified Education Assn., whose 1,100 members took a 2.59% pay cut, said the teachers still don't know what the new budget will mean to their wallets. But she added: "Morale is pretty low. It's going to be a difficult year."
Gladys Hall-Kessler, president of the 1,100-member Santa Ana Educators Assn., said teachers are worried that class size will soar due to the combined impact of the state budget and increasing enrollment.