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Editorial

Stealth attack on California's schools

AB 114 was passed to appease the California Teachers Assn., to the detriment of school districts, which are already in serious financial straits.

July 08, 2011

Ham-fisted yet pandering, and fiscally irresponsible too, AB 114 perpetrates an abuse of state power that could wreak budgetary havoc in local school districts. But in that case, why hasn't the news been filled with details of this bad-government bill as it wended its way through the Legislature? Because it was hurriedly and secretively passed, quite literally in the dark of night, with no committee hearings and almost no public notice, and then quickly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

AB 114 was passed to appease the California Teachers Assn., which sought to stanch the flood of teacher layoffs. That's certainly understandable. Just about everybody would like to avoid the reductions in force that have harmed dedicated educators and their students.

But schools cannot operate on air and hope, which is what AB 114 requires. School districts no longer are allowed to prepare their own budget forecasts or even their own budgets; instead, the law requires them to assume that they will get as much money from the state this year as they did in the last, even though the projections on which the state budget is based are unrealistically rosy. School budgets will probably have to be slashed midyear, and school boards and superintendents will have to deal with it then, on the fly.

They aren't allowed to lay off teachers or cut programs to balance their budgets, not now or during midyear cuts. How will they stay open, then? That's unclear. The law allows for shortening the school year by seven days, but only if the districts can successfully negotiate that with their individual unions. Since the teachers know they can't be laid off, they'll be in a strong position to refuse any such cuts in the academic year.

Prudent school districts that have wisely set aside healthy contingency accounts to cover future expenses and keep the schools running smoothly will now find it hard to avoid spending that money. For those without substantial emergency funds, that means borrowing.

The law even eliminates long-term fiscal responsibility by suspending 30-year-old rules that required school districts to demonstrate balanced budgets for the upcoming year and the two following. Counties were responsible for overseeing this prudent practice; now they have been stripped of that authority.

More than 140 school districts are already in serious financial jeopardy, according to a state Department of Education estimate released in June. If Brown and legislative Democrats do not muster the courage to defy the California Teachers Assn. by repealing AB 114, they may push many more districts to the brink.

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