Education officials scramble to assess Jerry Brown's budget plan

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School officials and educators across the state were scrambling Thursday to decipher what Gov. Jerry Brown's 167-page budget document would mean to them after the governor's Department of Finance accidentally posted it online five days earlier than planned.

The proposed 2012 budget would slash $5.2 billion in public school funding if voters reject the tax increases Brown is trying to put on the November ballot. This would include about $200 million in cuts each to the University of California and the Cal State University systems and $4.8 billion to K-12 education and community colleges.

"This is not nice stuff, but that's what it takes to balance the budget, and that's assuming we get our tax revenues," Brown said at an afternoon press conference.

Brown's budget outlines a $9.2-billion deficit and proposes a total of $10.3 billion in cuts and revenues, so long as Brown's tax increases are approved by voters.

Because education makes up about 40 percent of the state's general fund, it stands to gain or lose a great deal depending on whether the tax measure passes, said H.D. Palmer, deputy director for the California Department of Finance.

Brown has filed a ballot initiative to temporarily raise taxes on those making $250,000 or more a year and increase sales tax by half a percent through 2017, so as to generate an estimated $6.9 billion annually. If approved by voters, the funds would go to education and public safety.

Assuming the initiative passes, K-12 education and community colleges would gain roughly $5 billion in funding each year, according to the state Department of Finance. The CSU and UC systems would also gain a 4 percent increase in state funding each year starting in 2013-14.

This after both systems took a $750 million cut to state funding last fiscal year. The budget provides for UC to receive an additional $90 million in offset costs for retirement funding that the CSU system already receives, state finance officials said.

But if voters do not approve the measure, funding for public K-12 schools and community colleges would be cut by $4.8 billion — about what it would cost to run three weeks of school. And the University of California and Cal State University systems would each be hit by a $200 million cut.

California superintendent of schools Tom Torlakson said he's confident the governor's ballot measure would pass. "The polls so far have shown that the public has an understanding of the severe cuts the schools have already suffered," he said.

But Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said district officials were still reviewing the proposed budget and were struggling to understand how it would approach its budget moving forward.

"How do you budget for money that doesn't exist yet?" Deasy said. "I mean, that's a real problem...Do you cut all your programs and hope it comes back? We don't have guidance from the governor."

The state's Department of Finance is working on language for the legislature to adopt that would specifically lay out how education funds would be allocated under a new formula, officials said. The formula, which would be phased in over five years, would give districts more flexibility as well as simplify the current methodology, according to the state's Department of Finance.

Deasy said the cuts to education funding have been "devastating" and has brought state funding to "pathetic levels."

"The point is, now we've come to the point of the cliff," Deasy said. "We're talking about the wholesale loss of programs."

The LAUSD's projected budget deficit for 2012-13 is estimated to be $532 million, said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for LAUSD. Over the last four years the district has suffered nearly $2.3 billion in cuts, according to district officials.

To deal with this, Cox said the district has had to cut more than 5,000 employee positions, delay textbook adoptions, shorten the school year and cut summer school as well as many programs. The district has also had to increase its K-12 class sizes and reduce some staffing and work hours. Over the past two years district employees have been asked to take an average of 12 unpaid furlough days to save more jobs from being cut.

For CSU the cut it faces would be equal to the cost of instructing 27,000 students, university officials said. And it would decrease the system's state funding to $1.8 billion, taking it back in time by about 15 years, even though the system enrolls 95,000 more students today, said Erik Fallis, a spokesman for the CSU system.

In the last four years, CSU tuition has nearly doubled from $2,772 per year for the average full-time student, to $5,472. CSU has also laid off more than 4,000 of its employees and had to furlough staff, Fallis said. About 20,000 students who were qualified to attend CSU but could not be accommodated because of budget issues, delayed or abandoned their plans entirely, he said.

"We are now continuing the cycle of the state dis-investing in higher education and this budget has not restored that, we're still at this low point with the potential of going even lower," Fallis said. "The burden has been shifted to students and it is becoming a challenge to make sure that we can offer an affordable quality education."

And at the California Community Colleges spending per student has decreased by 10.6 percent while unit fees have risen by nearly 80 percent since the 2007-8 academic year, according to figures provided on its website.

Students will likely suffer fewer course sections, larger class sizes, longer wait lists, and services that are only offered a portion of the time, said California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott in a telephone call with reporters in December.

"We can't keep slashing higher education budgets and raising fees to cover the shortfalls and close the budget gaps," Scott said. "California's families and students can't plan for college costs."

The released budget comes on the heels of an already enacted $1 billion in "trigger cuts" across many state programs, including education and services for the disabled. The mid-year cuts were necessary because of lower than anticipated tax revenues.

But even if the tax measures pass and the proposed budget stands without additional education cuts, the picture still isn't pretty, said Peter Manzo, president and CEO of the United Ways of California.

"It's not like anybody's going to be doing handstands over K-12 and higher education in California," Manzo said. California was ranked 43rd in the nation in 2007-8, prior to the financial crisis, for the amount of resources it provided to each student, he said. And while cuts proposed in other areas did not affect the education budget, it may still indirectly do so — for example, by cutting childcare subsidies and welfare, and thereby preventing lower-income women education opportunities, Manzo said.

The Public Policy Institute of California found the state needed one million more people with Bachelors degrees to keep the state competitive in a global economy by 2025.

"I guess the big question is," Manzo said, "this budget may stem the cuts we've seen in recent years in the best case, but what does the future look like?"

Tami Abdollah can be contacted by email and Twitter (@LATams).

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