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CALIFORNIA'S BUDGET CRISIS

Davis Restores Some Funds, but Schools Still Face Deep Cuts

'We're going to be hit by a 15-ton truck instead of a 20-ton truck,' says one official in a district still planning to send out layoff notices.

May 15, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis' revised budget treats public education better than local school district leaders had feared, but many said Wednesday that they still face deep cuts in the months to come.

Davis increased primary and secondary school funding for next year by $403 million over his January budget proposal and paid particular attention to such issues as keeping class sizes small in lower grades and helping special education.

Spending per student for next year would be $6,869, an increase of $161 or 2%, from his January plan.

Even after those adjustments, however, California's primary and secondary schools still face $1.5 billion in reductions in the next academic year and are contemplating such unpleasant steps as laying off teachers and administrators, dropping enrichment classes and boosting the number of children in classes, especially in upper grades.

Districts faced a deadline today to send out layoff notices to teachers, even if some of those are rescinded later.

"We're going to be hit by a 15-ton truck instead of a 20-ton truck. The cuts are still going to be huge," said Supt. Jim Fleming of Capistrano Unified, an Orange County district that is still planning to send out layoff notices to 117 teachers despite the funding change. "This is not pulling education out of the fire."

Los Angeles Unified Supt. Roy Romer welcomed Davis' funding increases, but said the extra money will provide only a modest boost for his district, which is looking at deep administrative cuts and other reductions to avoid teacher layoffs. "We still have a very steep hill to climb," Romer said. "It may be a little less steep based on what the governor did."

Davis restored $180 million to keep no more than 20 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes in a popular program that is voluntary for school districts. That was a key goal for the California Teachers Assn. union.

Still, some districts said they are planning to eliminate those smaller classes in some grades -- third grade in Capistrano -- because they can't afford to pay their share.

In March, districts put as many as 30,000 teachers statewide on notice that they could lose their jobs next year. Even before Wednesday's new financial figures, the number of teacher layoffs was expected to shrink considerably as a result of other belt tightening.

School district officials and state education experts were studying Davis' revised budget Wednesday and remained uncertain about how much it would help them avoid layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

Davis said that the increased funding for schools in his revised budget reflects his commitment to public education even as the state grapples with a huge budget deficit.

Aside from spending $180 million on class size reduction, Davis proposed spending $28 million more than he requested in January to fully fund the state's expense on special education. An additional $65 million would pay for school accountability programs targeted at raising test scores at the lowest-performing campuses.

Davis had planned to strip $126 million from 60 so-called basic aid districts -- those that generate enough property taxes to pay most of their own costs. Instead, after an intense lobbying campaign by those districts, including those in Laguna Beach and Palo Alto, he decided to take $20 million. Those districts have said they could live with that compromise.

"Education is the key to California's future," Davis said in a statement. "Over the past four years, California has made great strides. Test scores are up four years in a row. This budget builds on that progress."

Davis won praise from many educators for the revision in education funding, which consumes the largest share of state spending -- more than $29 billion, or about 40% of the general fund next year.

"There is no question that school agencies will breathe a sigh of relief when they see these numbers," said Susan Murai, president of the California Assn. of School Business Officials. "We knew there was going to be a cut, but it's not the magnitude we thought."

In January, Davis proposed a controversial step to consolidate many of the so-called categorical programs, which receive about $12 billion in state funds and ensure separate funding for such services as bilingual teacher training, Native American centers and Advanced Placement. That triggered protests from interest groups that feared they would be lost in the squeeze.

On Wednesday, Davis backed away from that and left those funding questions open for the discussion with the Legislature.

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