State budget: Where will the ax fall? Schools still don't know

After months of hand-wringing, local education officials still don't have a clear picture of the budget shortfalls they may face next school year.

On Tuesday afternoon, the state's budget conference committee recommended big cuts to education, but their cuts were less severe than those proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year.

About $5.3 billion was sliced from elementary schools, high schools and community colleges, or about $680 million less than the governor had sought.

A total of $533 million was cut from the budgets for the University of California and the California State University systems, on top of the $1.4 billion cut from the current fiscal year.

The committee's recommendations still have to pass a two-thirds vote in each house. Schwarzenegger has already announced that he will not sign off on its recommendations, due to new taxes and other actions he disagrees with.

K-12 education

Most of the proposed cuts to K-12 education were made to the revenue limit -- a combination of state and local tax funding that comprises most of a school district's general fund.

"Merced County school districts will likely approach this differently," said Nathan Quevedo, spokesman for the Merced County Office of Education. "Some may reduce transportation while others may increase class size. This is a difficult time for the economy as a whole, especially education."

Among the committee's recommendations were a 20 percent cut to transportation funding and the elimination of state funding for the high school exit exam.

School districts must file a balanced budget to the county office of education before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. Because most districts have already prepared budgets based on Schwarzenegger's harsher recommendations, the news might be construed as good, said Tim Zearley, chief business official for the Dos Palos-Oro Loma school district.

"They treated districts a little more favorably than the governor did," Zearley said.

Community colleges

Ben Duran, president of Merced College, said the most devastating effect to his institution will be the committee's vote to eliminate "growth funding." Community colleges are paid, much like school districts, based on their enrollment.

Except they haven't been.

Last fall, the college exceeded 10,000 students for the first time in the institution's history. Joy over the achievement was dampened when officials learned they wouldn't be compensated for the additional bodies.

That lack of funding, in addition to the money they will miss out on this year, creates a $3.7 million gap for a college still growing.

Cuchna said the campus is expecting another 5 percent increase in students next year.

Recently, the college announced plans to cut course offerings, which has affected up to 700 students in the summer and 1,500 in the fall, who will have to enroll in different classes.

The college hasn't laid off employees yet, but part-time staff will be forced to teach fewer courses than they originally expected, Duran said.

The committee also approved a $6 fee increase per unit, which means the college's accounting department will have to issue bills for students that have already registered and paid for the fall semester, if the recommendations stick.

Duran is worried that some students will have to leave the college because of the higher fees and fewer course offerings, which could ultimately lead to decreased revenue.

The college passed a tentative budget Tuesday night and will finalize spending plans early next fall.

UC Merced

Patti Waid Istas, executive director of communications at UC Merced, said it was not clear how budget cuts would play out locally.

"So much depends on what the legislature and the governor finally decide later this summer," Istas said. "The actual impacts to the campuses at this point are not finalized."

The UC Office of the President is considering salary reductions for all employees as part of a comprehensive cost-cutting plan for the next fiscal year, Istas said.

An e-mail about different salary reduction and furlough plans was sent to all university employees on Wednesday. Those reductions could save an estimated $195 million.

The board of regents is expected to approve one of the options at its July meeting.

UC Merced announced on Tuesday a 30 percent increase in the number of incoming freshman students next year.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report. Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.