Friday, September 19, 2008

Education leaders blast proposed state budget plan

By Kimberly S. Wetzel | Contra Costa Times

09/19/2008 05:51:22 PM PDT - State and local education leaders this week, getting their first glimpse of the new state budget proposal, blasted the tentative spending plan as an "accounting gimmick" that leaves students out in the cold.

The plan — approved by the Legislature more than 80 days late and which was still awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature Friday — allots $58.1 billion for education, an increase of almost $300 million over last year. That amounts to a cost-of-living increase of 0.7 percent, much less than the 5.66 percent increase school districts hoped to get, or about $3 billion less than educators would like to see, according to Jennifer Kuhn, analyst at the state Legislative Analyst's Office.

Education leaders this week echoed each other in criticizing the plan, saying it doesn't do enough to help local school districts pay for the rising costs of just about everything. State Superintendent of Instruction Jack O'Connell called the plan a "gimmick," while California Teachers Association President David Sanchez and California PTA President Pam Brady each urged Schwarzenegger to use his veto power to leverage a more education-friendly budget.

"The proposed budget includes a reduction of the cost-of-living adjustment that will further tighten the vise on local school budgets as districts across the state face increased costs for supplies, food, transportation and employee health care costs," O'Connell said in a statement. "These reductions are a disservice to California's 6 million school children and the thousands of educators across the state."

The plan does keep in place state Proposition 98, a 1988 constitutional amendment approved by voters that guarantees minimum funding for education, and there's language that restores cost-of-living funds in the event the money becomes available. There was some discussion of suspending Proposition 98 earlier this year amid the $17 billion state deficit.

The Legislature approved the $104 billion spending plan Tuesday, but the relief was short-lived as the governor threatened to veto the bill later that day. A compromise announced Thursday does not change the education components of the plan, and Schwarzenegger is expected to sign off on the deal soon.

Because of the record-long impasse, local school districts have been operating without state money for months. Mt. Diablo school district Superintendent Gary McHenry said the district has been able to pay its bills using a carry-forward balance but is awaiting state money for such things as classes to help high-schoolers pass the state-mandated exit exam.

He said he's disappointed that the Legislature took so much time to deliver such a lackluster budget.

"My first reaction is it's not sufficient," McHenry said. "My second reaction is it took too long. The proposal they came up with, to me, could have been done two months ago."

Troy Flint, spokesman for the state-run Oakland schools, said the drawn-out legislative process, with its fluctuating budget projections, has posed an extra challenge for his district.

Oakland Unified, which received a multimillion-dollar emergency loan from the state in 2003, has had to revise its long-range financial recovery plan in light of the new projections, Flint said. The district is now expecting to spend $9 million less in 2009-2010 than it had planned because of a dramatic reduction in the cost-of-living money from the state.

"We were hoping for a better solution," Flint said. "While the impact for this year will be minimal, next year's outlook is discouraging."

No comments: