Central Valley

Education officials plan for drastic budget cuts

SACRAMENTO -- Ever since Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed cutting $4.4 billion from school budgets, there has been great skepticism that the plan would survive in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Nonetheless, education leaders are planning for the worst.

More than 107,000 teachers would be laid off statewide, class sizes would jump by 35%, and music, art and career technical education programs would be slashed, teachers unions and school administration groups warned Friday.

"What we will be suggesting is that [school districts] take it seriously and they start to take a look at what kind of actions are going to be needed not only next year but ... in the current year," Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association, said at a Sacramento news conference.

The governor, in a plan released last week, is asking schools to give up $400 million this year. Next year, schools would get $4 billion less than scheduled under Proposition 98, the state's school funding law.

The cuts are part of Schwarzenegger's plan to cut spending across the board to plug a $14.5 billion budget hole.

Democrats, who are influenced by the powerful education lobby, are not expected to go along with such severe cuts.

Leaders already have suggested that tax increases may be needed to get out of the budget mess.

Republicans, too, are unlikely to agree with such drastic education cuts, though the GOP is opposed to new taxes.

"While suspending Proposition 98 may help balance the state's budget, why should our children suffer?" Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, said in a recent statement.

But with K-12 school funding consuming 40% of the general fund, lawmakers might find it hard to trim the deficit without cutting at least some of the growth in school funding.

Under the governor's plan, per-pupil spending would drop from $11,935 to $11,626, which is still more than the $11,279 spent in 2006-07, according to Schwarzenegger administration figures.

Lawmakers began budget proceedings this week and say they will first consider the governor's proposal to cut more than $800 million in state spending this year, including the school cuts.

Valley school districts are not too worried about the midyear cuts because the governor's plan targets unspent grant money. As for the 2008-09 budget, officials are waiting to see how negotiations play out.

"We've told people don't panic," said Larry Powell, Fresno County superintendent of schools. "We know the governor's proposal will not be what the final product is."

Still, Powell has advised school districts to spend money wisely because at least some cuts are likely.

School officials have long anticipated a bad budget year, and most districts have built up sufficient reserves, including Fresno Unified, Powell said.

Though layoffs are possible, officials are being careful about being too alarmist.

"We are a little bit skeptical about ... the big push about adopting the worst case right now," said Christine Statton, chief financial officer of Visalia Unified School District.

In previous bad budget years, the district has issued layoff notices, only to rescind most of them after the state's fiscal picture brightened some -- a scenario that causes needless anxiety, she said.

"It just really hurts people," she said. "It stirs up their lives."