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Schools prepare for devastating losses of funding

With California in ever-more-dire financial straits, many districts are facing further layoffs, school closures, bigger classes and possibly shortening the school year. Some may even face insolvency.

May 21, 2009|Seema Mehta and Jason Song

After voters rejected ballot measures that would have restored state funding for schools, educators across California on Wednesday braced for $5.3 billion in cuts over the next 13 months. State and district officials predicted increased class sizes, additional teacher layoffs, more school closures and fewer arts and music offerings. Some districts could face insolvency.

"When there are such ludicrous amounts of money being cut, I don't know what other choice they are going to give us," said Steve Fish, superintendent of the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in south Orange County, which is already planning to shutter libraries and computer labs, lay off 100 teachers and eliminate nearly half its high school guidance counselors.

Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected five ballot measures intended to shore up the state's finances, leaving legislators to bridge a $21.3-billion budget gap. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting education funding by $1.6 billion for the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and nearly $3.7 billion for next year.

Unpleasant options

Districts could tap their reserves and federal economic stimulus dollars to lessen the effect of the cuts, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger's finance department. He said these reductions will be difficult but noted that schools are bearing 30% of the cuts even though they account for 40% of the state's general fund.

State officials will probably loosen regulations -- such as allowing districts to cut seven days off the school year, delay replacing old textbooks and divert class-size reduction funds to other purposes.

California already has received about $4.3 billion in education funding from the economic stimulus package approved by Congress earlier this year, but there remain billions more that will be dependent on how California uses the first round of money. States that use the money to reform troubled schools will be rewarded.

"Actions speak louder than words," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will meet with educators in San Francisco on Friday. "The state is at a fork in the road and they will either decide to have the courage to do the right thing by its children and create the possibility of bringing in literally hundreds of millions of dollars in competitive grants at a time of tremendous financial need, or the state can choose to perpetuate the status quo and leave those resources on the table."

He was particularly dismayed by the proposal to clip seven days off the 180-day school year.

"The school day, the school week and the school year I think are all too short, and particularly hurt children who come from tougher economic backgrounds," he said in an interview.

Educators and state officials -- already reeling from years of state cuts, including $7.4 billion this year -- seemed frustrated yet resigned to the inevitability of new reductions.

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines anticipates $131 million in new cuts this year and up to $273 million next year.

The district has already cut almost $560 million from this year's budget and is considering laying off up to 2,500 teachers. The school board is scheduled to vote on a final budget by July, and district officials are generally prohibited by state law from laying off more instructors, so the cuts will have to occur elsewhere. The district may eliminate summer school, reduce after-school programs and switch some employees to a 10-month work year.

Cortines said he was worried about the district's ability to remain solvent.

"Here's where we are, right on the precipice," he said. "I am telling you I cannot balance the budget at this moment for the [next] three years."

Lacking backup

Fish, the Saddleback Valley superintendent, said he expects many districts to declare themselves unable to meet their financial obligations, including possibly his own. In the past, such a move would have led to a state loan and intervention.

But Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said he doesn't know how the state will be able to help districts facing bankruptcy. "We don't have any money for a loan," he said.

Higher education will also be affected. The University of California system faces up to a $531-million shortfall next year as a result of the failed measures and other factors. And the California State University system faces a $410-million shortfall for next year.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com

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