By FERMIN LEAL and SCOTT MARTINDALE,THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER | http://bit.ly/hnLCaR
March 12, 2011 [Updated: March 14, 2011 7:15 a.m.] - Orange County's school districts plan to slash at least $129 million in spending and 1,429 jobs next year if the state can't avoid $2.3 billion in new cuts.
Many districts will again implement furlough days, fewer instruction days and salary freezes started in 2009-10, as well as increase class sizes and slash programs.
|THE LAYOFF CYCLE|
|State law requires school districts across California to notify teachers and other certificated employees facing layoffs by March 15. Final layoffs occur May 15.|
|Employees including, clerks, custodians, bus drivers, instructional aides and other classified jobs must be notified by May 15.|
But the 2011-12 cuts would have been significantly worse if not for $96 million local districts received under a federal education jobs bill passed in August. The stimulus funds may have saved, at least for one year, more than 1,000 school jobs in Orange County, officials estimate.
"School districts are in a dire situation right now," said county schools Superintendent William Habermehl. "They got a reprieve with this jobs bill, but it's only a Band-Aid. There is still a cloud hanging out there for everyone."
The county's 28 school districts have already started preparing budgets for the 2011-12 school year – a process that involves anticipating worst-case scenarios featuring deep spending and job cuts so districts are ready when state funding finally becomes clear.
Tuesday marks one of the first steps in the effort – March 15 is the state deadline for notifying teachers of possible layoffs.
In January, Gov. Jerry Brown announced he would maintain K-12 funding at this year's levels, but only if voters approve extending for five years the higher state taxes that went into effect in 2009. Without the extensions, K-12 schools statewide would have to cut $2.3 billion more, the governor said.
Orange County's education community has responded with a massive lobbying effort aimed at getting the tax extensions on the June ballot.
This week, the Orange County Education Coalition – a countywide group of school employees, trustees, PTA parents and union leaders – launched a campaign urging members to contact state lawmakers to express support for the proposed ballot measure, said Education Coalition member Suzie Swartz, a Saddleback Valley Unified School District trustee.
"It's one voice," Swartz said. "We're just trying to give people the information they need to start talking to our legislators and neighbors and friends, and just raising everyone's awareness level of what this will mean to our public education system."
School Services of California, a Sacramento-based financial consultant to school districts, has advised districts to prepare their budgets assuming the tax extensions don't pass – a cut amounting to an estimated $349 per student.
That has prompted 22 districts responding to a Register survey to craft plans cutting $129 million, although some have also prepared alternative budgets based on the taxes' passage.
Anaheim Union officials say a $3 million deficit could balloon to $13 million without the additional taxes and require 155 job cuts.
Local school districts have already cut a combined $800 million over the past three years, according to the Orange County Department of Education.
Since 2008, districts have increased class sizes, cut days from the school year, closed campuses, eliminated hundreds of jobs and slashed programs, including summer school, music and arts.
Last year, districts introduced employee furloughs as a way to trim salaries. Most O.C. districts reduced annual instruction from 180 days to as low as 175 days.
At least eight districts will continue furloughs through next school year. Others say they may implement furloughs again, pending negotiations with labor unions.
At the Anaheim City School District, where a 175-day calendar is already approved for next year, 10 annual furlough days accepted by teachers have helped stave off scores of job cuts and the loss of student intervention programs, spokesman Peter Daniels said.
Many districts, including La Habra City, will also take advantage of waivers that allow class sizes to increase higher than state law allows. Schools previously faced financial penalties for exceeding state class-size restrictions. For example, kindergarten classes were previously limited to 31 students, but can now grow to 33.
"Nobody wants to see class sizes get too big – it becomes harder for students to learn and teachers to teach," said Pam Rodriguez, a parent from Costa Mesa and member of the county's PTA chapter. "But the alternative at this point seems a lot worse. Districts are closing schools, cutting music and arts, and laying off counselors."
Other districts, including Fountain Valley, Centralia and Santa Ana Unified, say they may avoid some cuts by dipping into budget reserves. Districts have been hesitant to use reserves because the practice only delays painful cuts, officials said.
Some districts are finding that pay concessions already made by employees won't keep them fiscally solvent. Capistrano Unified, which imposed 10.1 percent pay cuts on teachers a year ago, took steps this week to seek additional concessions, proposing to formally reopen two items in the teachers' contract – wages and class sizes – for continued discussion with union leaders.
The move was necessitated by "current district and state economic challenges," Superintendent Joe Farley said in a memo to trustees.
Capistrano teachers also got back about a third of their pay cut this year via a pay restoration formula that was part of their contract.
Unlike last year, though, when Capistrano teachers went on strike over imposed pay cuts, union leaders anticipated a smoother discussion, said teachers union President Vicki Soderberg.
"Make no mistake about it – your teachers are committed to finding solutions to the fiscal challenges, even if that means continued financial sacrifice," Soderberg told trustees Tuesday.
Jobs bill cuts layoffs
Most districts credit last year's federal jobs bill for helping to avert massive layoffs.
The $26 billion bill was designed to save jobs in public schools by retaining, recalling or rehiring former employees, and hiring new employees. Districts that shortened their school year could use the funds to restore days to the school calendar.
Districts were able to spend the money in 2010-11, but most decided to save it since they had long since finalized budgets by the time the cash arrived in November.
Santa Ana Unified, the county's largest district with 55,500 students, is one of 10 countywide that plans to issue no layoff notices to teachers.
Santa Ana trustee John Palacio said the district will use $8.3 million in jobs bill money to subsidize salaries for hundreds of teachers, counselors, administrators and other employees who would have otherwise been laid off.
Palacio said that the federal funding was a "lifesaver for education jobs." But next year, when the money runs out, school districts that avoided layoffs will likely face another round of painful job cuts.
"The jobs bill might have just put off the inevitable for another year unless the budget situation in California changes dramatically," Palacio said.
But other districts pointed out that the latest round of federal stimulus money is considerably less than prior federal allotments, and that's necessitating some layoff notices.
In Saddleback Valley Unified, the Language Arts Assistance Program, which provides targeted intervention to elementary students who struggle with reading, was kept going with stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Swartz said.
"The only reason we were able to keep it alive was through ARRA funds, so that program is gone," she said.
Some districts also may consider taking advantage of a provision in state law that allows layoffs of teachers and other employees up until Aug. 15, if state funding for schools increases by less than 2 percent.
But Michele Huntoon, associate vice president with School Services of California, said she has cautioned districts against that strategy.
"School districts already have an understanding of how bad the budget situation could get," she said. "It makes better sense to just deal with the situation now so they can stay ahead of the curve."