Sunday, May 17, 2009

GOVERNOR’S EDUCATION CUTS RANGE FROM BAD TO WORSE – O’Connell: “The proposals offer a choice between devastating and horrific cuts to public schools.”

Canan Tasci, Staff Writer | Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (LA Newspaper Group)


16 May | In a year when schools have been pummeled by budget cuts, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed two budgets that will continue to eliminate money to the already struggling state education system.

The two proposals were released just days before Tuesday's special election as part of Schwarzenegger's May revision.

One plan is based on voter approval of Propositions 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, and 1E. The other proposal is based on the rejection of the ballot measures.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said the proposals offer a choice between devastating and horrific cuts to public schools.

"I am heartsick at the prospect that public schools in California are being asked to absorb between $800 million and $1.4 billion in the final month of the traditional school year, and then an additional

$1.6 billion to $4.2 billion in the next school year," O'Connell said.

"If approved, these proposed cuts would be added to the $11.6 billion in cuts to schools approved last February."

Thursday's budget proposal also detailed ways the state will try to close its $15.4 billion gap.

Both plans call for laying off thousands of state employees, cutting health-care programs for the poor, transferring up to 19,000 illegal-immigrant prisoners to federal custody and selling off state assets such as Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and San Quentin State Prison.

Local schools have anticipated the 2009-10 school year tocome with deep cuts, meaning school closures, teacher layoffs, freezing positions and program cuts.

The overall cuts to education didn't surprise Casey Cridelich, assistant superintendent of business at Ontario-Montclair School District.

"Not really - not when (Schwarzenegger) has been hammering on us this whole time. We knew what it was going to be like," Cridelich said. "It's better to go with the worst-case scenario, because if it does get better it's a surprise, like dodging a bullet."

What educators weren't expecting were cuts proposed to this school year, which is weeks away from ending.

"How do you cut a budget when you're already 90 percent into the year? It's just not a reasonable thing to do," said Bob Dalton, assistant superintendent of business services at the Rancho Cucamonga-based Central Elementary School District.

"But they're doing this because there is just nothing else they can do. We're way beyond the point of politics - this is a recession, and the state just doesn't have the money for funding."

Pomona Unified School District spokesman Tim McGillivray said he would like to see more solutions.

"To say the state has provided a solution with the budget being passed is not a solution, and I don't think the solution is cut more and tax more," McGillivray said. "There is something fundamentally wrong with the revenue collection and spending priorities in the state."

At this point, districts are left to dig into their reserves to make ends meet, Dalton said.

"You're nibbling and nibbling away at places where you don't want to go, but you're also left with no other choices, and believe me it's not like the districts even want to do that," he said.

O'Connell said schools will lose counselors, nurses and librarians. The school districts will also likely have to cut athletic programs as well as classes in art, music and career technical education.

The real question is how will schools survive the next year and following years, Dalton said.

Although the federal stimulus money - which districts expect to see in their accounts by the end of the month - will provide them with some flexibility, it may not be enough to soften the blow of the cuts.

"Education is 40 percent of the state's budget, so you know they're obviously going to have to cut from that," McGillivray said. "But California has to stop thinking this is sustainable for the future of the state. How far can we go in cutting education before damaging our future?"

Area educators had the same reaction as O'Connell to the governor's May budget revision - describing it as an already worst-case scenario getting worse.

"We share O'Connell's reaction because either proposal shows education is slated to sustain further cuts," said Lisa Rivero, director of categorical programs for the Fontana Unified School District.

"And it's the uncertainty that makes this difficult process more challenging. That uncertainty being where the additional cuts will come from and to what extent."

San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Gary Thomas said it will be extremely painful for school districts to make more cuts in this school year.

"I think the state has been moving in a very positive direction with student achievement and academic gains, and I fear these kinds of cuts will muddy that progress," he said.

"It will be very difficult for school districts to find these reductions without affecting the services and programs that are provided for the students."

California is already ranked 47th in per-pupil spending, with an average $7,571 per student in comparison with a national average of $9,961.

California trails most states in academic performance and suffers from high dropout rates.

Simply put, additional cuts to public education would be paralyzing, O'Connell said.

"We think about having a world-class education system," O'Connell said. "These cuts would bring us a Third World education system."

Staff writer Debbie Pfeiffer Trunnell contributed to this report.

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