By Sharon Noguchi/ San Jose Mercury News | http://bit.ly/eP0c7u
02/12/2011 | Updated: 02/13/2011 04:20:22 AM - In what has become a fantasy-like world of school finance, school districts are scurrying to build their 2011-12 budgets, preparing for bad and worst cases. Although the state of California orders schools to forecast next year's budget, the Legislature refuses to supply the critical missing variable -- just how much money educators can count on for next year.
So with revenue from Sacramento unknown, school business officials such as Randy Kenyon in the Los Altos School District are sketching out four scenarios for next school year. Rick Hausman, chief business officer in the Cupertino Union School District, is drawing up two worst-case budgets.
In San Jose Unified, Chief Business Officer Ann Jones is working on a "Boy Scout budget." Think of it as "Be Prepared" accounting, in case the tax extensions proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown either don't get on the June ballot or don't pass. San Jose Unified then would have to cut $10.5 million next year out of its $300 million general-fund budget, Jones said.
If the taxes that Brown is championing do pass, San Jose Unified could fall back on its "Wishful Thinking" budget. The cuts to education would be comparatively minimal -- about $19 per student, or $608,000 -- and the district might be able to restore the full 180-day school year, without the five furlough days it had to negotiate with unions this year, Jones said.
The state Legislature isn't likely to decide on putting the tax extensions on the ballot until March, and the election wouldn't be until June, but schools don't have the luxury of waiting for certainty. State law requires schools to warn teachers of possible layoffs, and to submit a three-year budget forecast, by March 15.
So most school districts are taking the advice of groups such as the California Association of School Budget Officers and drafting at least two budgets, one for each tax scenario.
Los Altos and Cupertino have two more "what-if" budgets because both districts are hoping local voters will help out by passing a parcel tax in May. They are among four districts in Santa Clara County, along with three in San Mateo County, that are seeking parcel taxes this spring.
All seven will hold mail-only ballots that will be sent to voters in early April and will be due May 3.
"We entered the recession with substantial reserves, but reserves don't last forever," said Superintendent Ben Picard of the Sunnyvale School District. It is seeking its first-ever parcel tax, a seven-year, $59 assessment on each parcel of property.
"We've always been able to manage well without one," Picard said. "These are extraordinary times."
Both Los Altos and Cupertino, as well as Ravenswood City School District in San Mateo County, are seeking a second parcel tax to supplement existing ones.
In all cases, even if the measures pass, the schools will have to cut their budgets. Sunnyvale already has negotiated larger class sizes in all grades for 2011-12, Picard said.
The neighboring Los Altos School District is seeking a $193 tax for six years. That's on top of its $597 perpetual parcel tax, among the highest in the state.
"We're considering how we can maintain the excellence we are renowned for in these really tough times," Superintendent Jeffrey Baier said.
Without the second parcel tax, the district faces a $4 million shortfall next year, he said, and that's if the statewide tax extensions pass.
This year, the district saved teacher jobs in part by negotiating a three-day furlough and getting help from a $2.35 million contribution from the Los Altos Educational Foundation, donations from school PTAs and $7.5 million from its current parcel tax.
If passed, the new tax would raise an additional $2.3 million a year for six years.
The Los Gatos-Saratoga high school district is hoping to pass a $49-per-year levy for six years, the district's first parcel tax.
It's not only the large and possibly larger cuts that worry schools. The governor also proposes to defer more payments owed to districts. This year, the state is deferring $7.1 billion of what's owed to local districts for 2010-11, to be paid instead sometime in 2011-12. Next year, Brown has proposed deferring an additional $2 billion, meaning about one-third of the money due to schools won't actually arrive until their next school year, said Dennis Meyers of the California Association of School Budget Officers.
The maneuver is shocking, he said, except that weary budget officers are now used to such tricks.
And school administrators are resigned to the impossible task of budgeting in the dark. Years of recommendations by commissions and experts have failed to reform California's befuddling way of financing public education.
Meyers is the one who coined the four budget scenarios, the bottom two being "The Sky Is Falling," with $620-per-student cuts, and "Doomsday," with more than $1,000-per-student cuts to education.
How do you cope with an Armageddon-like possibility? "You make a plan, then you react," Hausman, a retired Army officer, said. By having Cupertino prepared for worst-case scenarios, "anything other than that will be better."
Jones said that she's focused on the Boy Scout and Wishful Thinking plans. She's not thinking of worse possibilities. "I personally believe it's too damaging to the entire system when we worry about these things. 'The Sky Is Falling'? I'm not even going to go there," she said.
Dealing with the budget crisis is akin to living in seismically unstable ground, she said. "If we have a big earthquake, I'll deal with it."
Possible SCHOOL BUDGET SCENARIOS
Dennis Meyers, assistant executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials, drafted these possible scenarios:
- Wishful Thinking: Based on the governor's January proposed budget, assumes voters extend temporary taxes -- schools lose $19 per pupil.
- Boy Scout: Based on the governor's budget without a tax extension and thus a $2 billion drop to K-12 schools -- schools lose $330 per pupil.
- The Sky Is Falling: Based on the tax-extension failure and the Legislature further cutting education -- schools lose $620 per pupil.
- Doomsday: Based on loss of temporary taxes and suspension of the Proposition 98 guarantee of minimal education funding -- schools lose $850 to $1,000 per pupil.
Four school districts in Santa Clara County and three districts in San Mateo County are seeking parcel taxes in a mail-only election; ballots are due May 3. They require two-thirds vote to pass.
Santa Clara County
Measure A -- Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District, six years, $49.
Measure B -- Sunnyvale School District, seven years, $59.
Measure C -- Cupertino Union School District, six years, $125.
Measure E -- Los Altos School District, six years, $193.
San Mateo County
Measure A -- San Carlos School District, extension, eight years, $110.60
Measure B -- Ravenswood City School District, extend current $98 for seven years and add new seven-year $98 tax
Measure C -- Jefferson Union High School District, four years, $96