Summary for those looking for the big picture: It’s not good news

Today’s California Senate budget committee hearing was one step on the path toward an all-cuts state budget.  The deadlines to place tax extensions on a June ballot, a key piece of Governor Brown’s proposal for a cuts-and-revenues balanced approach to closing the $25 billion hole in state finances, have passed.  Governor Brown called an end to negotiations late last month after the presentation of a 53-item demand list from the California GOP leadership.

Any number of scenarios are still in discussion, including tax renewal initiatives up for a November election, yet no clear alternative to an all cuts budget has emerged in recent weeks.  In addition to the $14 billion cuts to programs signed last month, the Senate is now looking to find the remainder of the shortfall through an additional $15 billion in reductions.  As a yardstick to measure the impact, terminating every state employee would net savings of less than $10 billion.

In a wide ranging conversation between the Senate Committee chair Mark Leno and Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, it became clear that unless there is a last minute reprieve, California public schools are looking at massive cuts.  Previously, California school districts were warned that failure to extend current taxes could result in a $2.1 billion reduction to schools (resulting from a lower threshold for Proposition 98, the floor mechanism for funding our schools).  That $2 billion reduction penciled out to approximately $350 per student enrolled in the state’s Kindergarten through 12 grades. Both Taylor and Leno acknowledge the per student reduction is now more likely in excess of $700.00, $4-5 billion overall. The expected allocation per student will drop to $6952, or 15% below the 2007-8 threshold when deep cuts to education began.  Reductions discussed today would bring the 3-year cuts to California schools to nearly $20 billion or nearly half of the annual education budget of $49 billion.

Other areas for reduction discussed in the committee hearing include a potential 5% cut in pay for all school employees, shortening the school year by up to a full month (!), delaying the Kindergarten Readiness transition program (Senator Simitian’s bill to raise the age cut off for kindergartners to 5 by 9/1), raising class sizes and outsourcing non-classroom functions.  In queries posed to the Legislative Analyst, it is clear that California, already near the bottom of the country in terms of per pupil funding and classroom days, is about to plummet to the basement in national standards.

Looking closer to home, the enormity of the loss is difficult to grasp. Depending on how the cuts play out in Sacramento, Santa Cruz City Schools could see an already austere budget slashed by $3 to $5 million – an amount nearly equal to the sum of cuts already made in the previous three years.  No specific scenarios have been entertained yet; much is dependent on next steps to be taken in the legislature. Putting the issue in perspective, the 2004 closures of Natural Bridges and Branciforte elementary schools were triggered by a shortfall of $800,000.

What can you do today?  Write to your legislators with an urgent appeal to fund our schools.  The Educate Our State coalition has excellent resources for letters and breaking budget news.  As we learn more about local action, we will keep you informed.