By STEVEN D. HERRINGTON
Traditionally, once the governor’s May budget revision is released, school districts generally have a good indication of where they stand financially. But that’s not the case this year.
The state owes public education $13 billion from prior-year budgets, and it has not determined how it will meet this outstanding legal obligation. Three billion is tentatively included in 2011-12 budget, but what is the plan for paying the remaining $10 billion?
The governor’s May revision proposes that funding for education remain at 2009 levels for the next two years, but it also includes revenue from the extension of the temporary tax rates. This tax revenue is essential to settling the state’s legal debt obligation to schools. Gov. Jerry Brown is adamant that the budget problems in California not be perpetuated, and he maintains that, without extended tax revenue, the state will need to make significant cuts to education — more significant than those we’ve already experienced.
For California school districts, this all-cuts budget “alternative” is equivalent to an additional 20-day reduction of classes. That’s four full weeks of lost instruction for students.
Compounding the budget stresses facing schools is the fact that the federal stimulus dollars that have helped fill the funding gap for the last two years have now ended. The federal stimulus provided more than $58 million for Sonoma County schools over that two-year period.
The Sonoma County Office of Education reviews and approves all school district budgets in the county, so we know how this budget turmoil is affecting schools. My office has recommended that local districts establish budgets that include cuts totaling at least $350 per student.
Once all the Sacramento wrangling is over and a state budget is finalized, districts will have 45 days to make financial adjustments. If the tax extensions gain approval, some programs may be added back and some staff may be reinstated for the 2011-12 school year. If there are no tax extensions, all the budget cuts will remain and additional, more drastic, cuts will need to be made.
As the state Education Coalition has said, these additional cuts could imperil the education of a generation of California students.
This is not a good situation, but it’s all that our schools have to work with right now. The bigger issue is that the long-term problem of school funding in California has not been solved. Schools need solid, secure funding to educate our community’s children to high academic standards.
So, the pressure is still on the state Legislature. We must have a long-term budget solution, one that addresses the state’s school debt obligation and provides for California’s education needs. Brown’s proposal to temporarily extend the taxes is the one and only feasible plan being discussed, and it has gained strong support from the education community, state Chamber of Commerce, and many individuals across Sonoma County and the state.
If you believe in the value of public education and care about the future of this county’s young citizens, please join me in pushing for approval of the governor’s budget plan.
Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County’s superintendent of schools and a member of the Sonoma County Education Coalition.