Education budget: ‘state gobbledygook’


In dealing with a new wildcard that could shorten the coming
school year by seven days, the Gilroy Unified School District is
still weathering the state’s ambiguous forecast of

possible budget scenarios

for the 2011-12 school year.
In dealing with a new wildcard that could shorten the coming school year by seven days, the Gilroy Unified School District is still weathering the state’s ambiguous forecast of “possible budget scenarios” for the 2011-12 school year.

It’s all contingent on a possible mid-year trigger in January, which will occur if projected state revenues fall short. That would impact kindergarten through 12th grades, delivering a $3 million dollar budget blow to GUSD that would necessitate cutting bus services in half.

“It’s so convoluted,” said trustee Jaime Rosso. “The state has given us license to say ‘If all else fails, just end school a week earlier.’ That’s the solution. That’s basically what they’re saying. Talk about a weirdo monkey wrench.”

Rosso’s referring to complications generated by the passage of Assembly Bill 114 as part of the state’s budget package, which temporarily prohibits districts from conducting teacher layoffs in August. It does allow schools to cut an additional week out of the instructional calendar, although this is subject to negotiation with teacher bargaining units.

A few board members are irate with legislators, prompting reactions like trustee Mark Good’s.

“It’s all fake math,” he said. “But the legislature doesn’t have a problem passing this idiotic budget so that they would get their paychecks on time. It’s nice they were able to take care of themselves. It panders to the unions at the expense of fiscal solvency of every school district in California.”

Michelle Nelson, president of the Gilroy Teachers Association, says it’s not “pandering”. Rather, legislators are trying to protect education from being “decimated further.”

Since tax extensions generating revenue for education were prevented from getting on the ballot, she said, “I don’t know what else pro-education legislators were supposed to do.”

State Assembly member Luis Alejo, who represents the 28th District of California, echoed this point. He attributed “tough decisions” to the fact tax extensions didn’t make it on the ballot. The overall purpose of AB 114 is to “minimize pain” and ensure stability for teachers and students, he said.

When asked how schools are supposed to deal with the quick turnaround time – GUSD would have a few months to get a budget together if trigger cuts were announced midyear – Alejo said he would work to make sure schools were “provided a realistic timeframe.”

As for the likelihood of cuts in January, “we’re confident we’re going to be able to meet projections, and those triggers will not go into effect,” he said.

GUSD trustees like Rosso and Good don’t see eye-to-eye with Alejo’s rosy outlook.

Adding to that, the state budget passed June 30 defers roughly $8.5 million of GUSD’s funding to the 2012-13 fiscal year. This creates a cash shortage that will force the district to borrow funds, according to Kirsten Perez, director of Fiscal Services for GUSD.

“It’s kind of the equivalent of getting a pay day loan,” she said. “The state says ‘there’s a problem, so you have to go out and get a short-term loan. We’re not going to pay you. You borrow money, and incur that cost. It’s awful.”

Updates on the current budget scenario were a hot topic during the school board meeting held Thursday at 7810 Arroyo Circle. Despite what Rosso referred to as a “mind boggling” budget scenario filled with “mixed signals,” trustees irked by numbers nonsense didn’t appear shocked by more bad news.

Rather, their attitude regarding education funding is embittered. By now, they’re regularly approaching the subject with a jaded arsenal of euphemisms.

Rosso referred to it as “state gobbledygook,” GUSD Board President Rhoda Bress called it “the albatross around our neck” and “bobbing for apples with our hands tied behind our back,” while Perez called it “deferral hokey pokey.”

She interprets the new state budget as a dichotomous mixture of good and bad.

Besides underfunding Proposition 98, a voter-approved measure that guarantees minimum state funding for education, Perez says California’s budget generates more debt for education by deferring a total $2.1 billion in payments that should be going to schools.

As for the good, “we like that the budget was on time this year,” she said.

Perez pointed out this is likely thanks to voters who opted to penalize legislators for budget tardiness.

Another positive aspect of the budget is that it factors in “real money,” meaning it’s fairly “certain” $80 billion of the state’s $86 billion education spending plan will be available, Perez said.

The January trigger is a major X-factor, however. The mid-year cuts break down to a $260 reduction in funding per average daily attending student – a $2.7 million loss for GUSD – in addition to a $350,000 loss in home-to-school transportation funding.

The “Catch 22,” as Rosso put it, is that AB 114 prohibits schools from planning ahead for this.

“They’re not guaranteeing the money, but they’re saying ‘just don’t cut,'” said Rosso. “If we can’t cut anybody in August, the only option we have is to end school a week earlier. They’re basically giving us their decision.”

Whereas districts were once required to submit budgets demonstrating solvency for three years out, GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores explains their responsibility for fiscal oversight has been temporarily suspended.

“How will districts plan for and handle a potential mid-year budget cut if they are not allowed to budget for it?” Perez asked, posing the question during her presentation.

“Are you going to answer that?” replied GUSD Board President Rhoda Bress through skeptical laughter.

“I don’t think there’s any good answer,” said Perez.

AB 114 states districts will have to lay out their budget on the assumption they’ll receive as much funding as they did the year before – but if state revenues are short of what’s anticipated, this mid-year trigger will constitute budget planning on the fly.

Still, the district is technically supposed “to ignore those triggers until they actually happen,” said Perez.

Flores said the district won’t be able to make a $2.7 million budget cut in March and still balance the budget. GUSD will have to plan for the trigger going into effect, she said.

Good called the bill “outrageous” and “completely insane,” explaining it mandates expenditures but doesn’t allow districts to make any cuts or control its own budget.

GUSD will continue to plan three years out and do everything it can under law to protect the interests of its students by fighting what he called a “fool-hardy bill.”

Come elections, if the choice is between Luis Alejo and a yellow dog, Good candidly pointed out he’ll vote for the yellow dog.

“The state has pushed its cash flow problems onto us,” said Perez, at the conclusion of her budget update. “And now we’re bearing the cost of that.”

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