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THE STATE BUDGET CRISIS / EDUCATION

L.A. Unified cuts could hurt reforms

The district might have to trim $36 million now and $500 million next year. It's unacceptable, board president says.

January 11, 2008|Jason Song and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles school officials received grim news Thursday: They may have to slash $36 million from the current budget and up to $500 million next year. Those reductions could affect reform efforts, salaries and classroom programs.

In his preliminary budget released Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed reducing spending for public schools by $4.35 billion next year, but the immediate panic was caused by his plans to slash $360 million this year, which will be more than half over by the time officials scramble to propose cuts.

Los Angeles Unified School District, with 700,000 students, receives about 13% of the state's kindergarten through 12th-grade education funding.

Board of Education president Monica Garcia called the cuts -- current and future -- unacceptable.

"We are coming from a place where we are in an educational crisis," she said. "The proposal . . . absolutely undermines what we need to do."

The district was already trying to identify about $100 million to cut from next year's budget to keep from sinking into debt, which could harm not only the bond and credit rating of the nation's second-largest school district, but also its students.

The focus of most of the school board's attention this year has been on crafting reforms, including some that probably would add to district costs.

Garcia said parents, administrators and educational groups contacted her after the governor announced his plans. "Already there's real outrage," she said.

District officials knew the governor planned to reduce education spending but said they envisioned nothing approaching this magnitude.

"It's very disappointing," said budget director Roger Rasmussen. "We want to protect the classrooms but . . . we'll see what the impact will be in the next few months."

Rasmussen said he couldn't recall such a big cut since 1978, when voters approved Proposition 13, which limited property taxes and changed the state's system for funding schools.

Thursday's grim numbers should have been no surprise, said David Long, the governor's appointed education secretary.

"Starting back in October, I've talked with a multiplicity of superintendents across the state," Long said. "They started preparing for this months and months ago."

For weeks, the governor's office has characterized this year's education budget as "over-funded" by an estimated $1.4 billion based on incoming revenues and the state's complicated funding formula. The governor eventually settled on asking for the return of $360 million. L.A. Unified and other districts declined to prepare for such a doomsday scenario, which they regarded either as unrealistic or as unthinkable. Officials pointed out that cutting a school's budget in the middle of the year could possibly mean laying off teachers and sending students into larger classes.

In tough economic times, the first draft of a governor's budget may be partly a shot across the bow to establish negotiating positions. And even state finance officials -- working for a self-professed anti-tax Republican governor -- insisted Thursday that they hoped to avoid current-year cuts.

The Schwarzenegger administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature will be looking for unspent funds in education programs normally restricted to a specific purpose, such as reducing class sizes. For example, declining state enrollment has left some money in these funds.

But any moves by the Legislature will have to take effect by March 1, said spokesman H.D. Palmer of the state's Department of Finance.

Between now and then, school districts will be faced with making potentially staggering contingency plans.

L.A. Unified officials said they weren't sure which programs could be affected.

So far this year, some popular actions by the Board of Education have exacerbated budget woes in the $6-billion general fund. In August, the board approved health benefits and more work hours for part-time cafeteria employees, at a cost this year of about $20 million. In November, the board backed away from a plan to regroup students into larger classes at schools where enrollments were smaller than expected.

Teachers and parents applauded the move, but it cost an estimated $18 million.

The budget morass also could play out in salary talks with district employees. The teachers union and L.A. Unified have yet to agree on wage levels for next year.

Districts throughout the state were also starting to consider cutbacks.

"It's a catastrophe," said Gentle Blythe, a spokeswoman for the 56,000-student San Francisco Unified School District.

San Francisco school officials said they might have to cut between $30 million and $40 million from next year's projected $485-million budget. They could not say how much they might have to reduce funding this year.

"We already have inadequate funding, so this will cut to the bone," Blythe said. "We will try not to make those cuts in personnel as much as possible."

Michael Fine, a deputy superintendent at the 44,000-student Riverside Unified School District, said that this year's cuts were manageable.

"Next year's are considerably greater than I anticipated. It will be devastating to schools and school districts," said Fine, who estimated that the district might have to cut up to $25 million from its $370-million budget.

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jason.song@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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