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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

School districts grapple with an uncertain budget

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More than a 120 school officials from about 80 districts throughout Southern California met at the L.A. County Office of Education in Downey on Thursday to review the state budget and discuss what it means for them. 

The education consulting firm School Innovations & Advocacy offered a sobering budget briefing. California faces a deficit of nearly $16 billion under the governor’s latest budget plan, and education could be in for almost $6 billion in cuts - unless voters approve Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative to raise taxes. 

"The uncertainty is going to be a real challenge" said Jack O’Connell, the firm’s chief education officer, who is also the former state superintendent of public instruction. He helped conduct the briefing.

"The potential triggers, which, if the governor’s proposed initiative on the November ballot does not pass, you will see some reductions in public education to each and every one of our public schools in our state.”

After the meeting, five officials from the Whittier City School District sat at a table to debrief. The district operates 11 schools - mostly for primary grades - with more than 6,000 students. Its employees already take a handful of unpaid days off.

Like districts across the state, Whittier would lose several roughly $440 per student if the initiative to raise taxes doesn’t pass, says its fiscal services director Maricela Barba.

“That’s $3 million that will not materialize in our budget although we’re building our budget as if we’re going to get the money. We have to pay salaries, we have to buy supplies. We have to pay for services, we have to pay for everything, but then we will not receive those funds if the tax initiative doesn’t pass.” 

Barba tries to budget without knowing how much money the state will send. When California issues IOUs, she has to take out loans.

"So then, because of all the uncertainties, I'm in the position where I need to build more than one budget," Barba said. "One that can be optimistic, and one that can be conservative."

A $3 million cut to a $50 million budget is major, Barba says. That $3 million also represents close to half the Whittier school district's reserves, which is about $7 million.

For Wanda Brown, a custodian and president of the district's support staff union, learning more about the budget is a political education.

"When you see the ads coming on the TV you’re going to know what is, well I’ll say it nicely, baloney, and what has been manipulated," Brown said. "And 99% of it is all manipulated in some way to yank your heartstrings and get you to vote a certain way."

Even with that knowledge, Brown says she will vote for the governor’s initiative.

"Without it we’re dead," Barba said. "Without it we lose a month of work a year...A 10-month employee, the average income ranges from $9 to $14 an hour depending on how long they’ve been with the district. And they survive, making that for 10 months a year. Can you imagine if they have to do that on nine months a year?"

Tami Abdollcah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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