The Legislative Analysts office released an update recently based on survey responses from over 300 school districts. Queried about how they are weathering steep reductions in findings, school districts in general are relying heavily on temporary funds and flexibility to preserve programs.  The LAO also just announced that should the proposed tax renewals fail, or fail to appear on the ballot, the resulting cut to California public schools will be approximately $4.5 billion, or approach $1,000 per student. Here’s a summary of responses and recommendations from the LAO report:

School districts using federal funds, reserves to save programs
Schools have somewhat insulated students from the deep cuts in state funding by applying temporary and one-time ARRA and federal jobs bill funds to the bottom-line. Many districts have drawn on cash reserves to maintain programs and minimize staff layoffs. In our district, we have saved most of our federal funds for the coming year.  This conservative measure, along with the 5-day reduction of the school year and deeper cuts away from the classroom have helped our schools preserve programs, small class sizes and jobs. However, once the federal dollars are gone, without increased revenue from the state, schools are looking at devastating cuts.

School districts are relying heavily on flexibility provisions
Beginning with the 2009-10 school year, schools were granted leeway in redirecting dollars from 40 restricted “categorical” funds into general funds.  Examples of categorical programs include Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), Adult Education, targeted support for at-risk students, etc. Locally, we shuttered most of our Adult Education programs and support for pre-schools and pre-Kindergarten managed through Adult Education.  Several GED and English language courses continue to operate through an cooperative relationship between Santa Cruz City Schools and the County Office of Education initiated by SCCS Board President Cynthia Hawthorne.

Flexibility also extended to the length of the school year. Districts could, given successful negotiations with their teachers unions, reduce the school year by as much as 5 days.  In our case, this was the chosen path.  By reducing the school year, the district reduced salary expenditures, but kept programs and small class sizes in place as well as keeping our libraries open. Many districts were forced to both reduce the school year and raise class sizes as reported in this California Watch story.  As few as five school districts in the state have fully open libraries with credentialed Library Media Teachers on staff.  Santa Cruz City Schools is one of those five districts.

LOA recommends providing more short-term flexibility
Based on survey responses, the LAO sees a need to extend categorical flexibility to Kindergarten though 3rd grade Class Size Reduction (CSR), After School Education and Safety (ASES) and transportation. Both CSR and ASES are programs highly regarded in district schools.  Parcel tax dollars from Measure P are specifically allocated to support the goals of class size reduction. We hope that an end to penalties and flexibility in CSR will not necessarily mean an end to small class sizes in our schools, especially given local support and funding.

Additionally, the LAO recommends that the state remove restrictions on contracting out for non-instructional services like transportation, payroll, food services, etc.  Currently, state regulations prohibit school districts from contracting out for services solely based on the need for savings.  The call for leniency in this area recognizes the need to prioritize students in the classroom first.

Making lasting changes to K-12 funding
Study after study – and even armchair observers – confirm that funding for schools in California is overly complex, inefficient and inequitable. The Governor’s proposed budget includes extending the flexibilities outlined above for another two years; the LAO rightly calls for bigger changes sooner.  By shifting to a formula that funds schools according to the needs of their students, coupled with basic block grants for general program areas, districts can begin to build student-first budgets that allow them to craft and fund programs designed for the needs of their particular students.