Friday, July 29, 2011


By Theresa Harrington - Contra Costa Times |

Updated: 07/28/2011 05:19:54 PM PDT - Pink-slipped teachers in some California schools are being called back to work as districts respond to the recently adopted state budget and a companion bill that is causing confusion.

Assembly Bill 114 says that districts aren't supposed to reduce staff and programs from last year's levels and must instead approve budgets as if they will receive the same funding. However, many superintendents and education advocates have criticized the law, saying it ties their hands by forcing them to rely on overly rosy state revenue projections without allowing them to adequately plan for possible cuts.

The law, signed June 30 by Gov. Jerry Brown, has forced some districts to revise budgets that factored in possible midyear cuts. The Elk Grove district in Sacramento County, for instance, laid off 445 teachers in May as a precaution against severe state cuts, then rehired them this month after the legislation was approved, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Districts throughout the state are interpreting the law differently, but all must finalize their budgets by Aug. 15.

"It's disappointing that AB 114 was passed in the middle of the night and without public debate or scrutiny," said Rick La Plante, spokesman for the New Haven district in Union City. "Good idea or bad, it's another example of why so many folks have lost faith in Sacramento and Washington. Local districts need more control over the shrinking dollars we're getting, not less, and our children and their families deserve some level of security about their education."

If anticipated state revenues fall $2 billion below projections, K-12 schools could lose as much as $1.5 billion in per-student funding, and absorb a $248 million cut in transportation funding, according to the state budget approved last month. If this "budget trigger" is reached, AB 114 authorizes school districts to slash as many as 12 days from the school year, shortening it from 180 days to 168.

This has some districts worried, because officials say it takes away their local control over how to distribute cuts. Further, officials worry they may not be able to convince teachers' unions to go along with a shortened school year. If they do, the disparity in the length of the school year from one district to the next could cheat needy students out of instructional time, said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa district in San Jose.

"It's just frustrating that they're coming up with laws like this that put the districts in untenable positions," he said. "They're giving us solutions that they can't support and have no control over and that's a typical state move."

The California Teachers Association has praised the legislation, saying it brings "stability" to schools that have already lost billions in state funding. Dean Vogel, president of the union, said districts have plenty of options.

"I just think they're crying scared," he said. "What they're going to be asked to do really is to come together with the stakeholders and figure out how to make this work."

Officials in some districts -- such as Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County; Oakland in Alameda County; and Berryessa in Santa Clara County -- say they do not need to bring back positions and programs because they have made cuts that are necessary even with flat revenues. Mt. Diablo already has built seven furlough days into its budget for the next two years, along with a $10.7 million reserve fund to protect against midyear cuts.

The Contra Costa County Office of Education recommends that districts plan for possible cuts of about $250 per student for elementary districts, $260 for unified districts and $300 for high school districts for mid-year cuts or other budget uncertainties. But School Services of California Inc., which advises many districts in preparing budgets, says it's not appropriate to maintain a reserve for midyear cuts under AB 114, although the law is vague in that area. Ron Bennett, president of the Sacramento-based company, recommended that districts maintain a larger general reserve than required.

A few districts might face state takeovers if they're unable to reach union agreements, said Peggy Marshburn, spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County Office of Education.

"Local superintendents and county school boards across the state are very concerned about this legislation and the impact it's going to have on schools," she said.

  • Staff writers Katy Murphy, Paul Burgarino, Neil Gonzales, Jonathan Morales, Sharon Noguchi and Rob Dennis contributed to this report.

ONLINE: More information about AB 114 is in the On Assignment blog

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