Legislative analyst: Budget cuts to public schools need not be as severe as Jerry Brown's proposal

California Gov. Jerry Brown reveals his May budget revise, Monday, May 14, 2012.
California Gov. Jerry Brown reveals his May budget revise, Monday, May 14, 2012.
Vanessa Romo/KPCC

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California may be able to soften its budget blow to public schools and other state programs Gov. Jerry Brown proposed this week. The state’s legislative analyst offered a plan Friday that would free up $2 billion — and would reduce an automatic $4 billion dollar cut to public schools if voters reject the governor’s initiative to raise taxes in November.

The governor’s proposed a $6 billion increase to schools in the coming fiscal year if voters approve his ballot measure to raise sales and personal income taxes. If they don’t, schools would lose $5.5 billion.

Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor offered another way to pay for school programs and reduce the size of the trigger cuts, freeing up $2 billion and reducing an automatic $4 billion cut.

“For the coming budget year, schools would end up in almost exactly the same place as under the governor’s [plan],” Taylor told reporters Friday, “but the important thing is you would have freed up this other $1.9 billion that could be used on other parts of the budget.”

Taylor wants the state to hold onto $2 billion Brown’s proposed to pay back school districts for cash the state owed in previous budget years. The legislative analyst said California could use that money to reduce cuts to other vital programs.

The analyst also has a plan to reduce the trigger cuts to schools if voters reject higher taxes by $1.3 billion.

Mike Fine, deputy superintendent of the Riverside Unified School District, said it’s not clear whether schools would be better off under the analyst’s proposal. Fine said the governor’s plan to pay $2 billion in cash the state owes school districts would have freed resources for classrooms.

“Every time we have to turn around and borrow from a third party to meet our cash needs, because the state isn’t sending their cash to us on time, is in essence a cut in [programs],” Fine reasoned, "because now we have interest costs, we have legal costs and all kinds of other issuance costs associated to that debt.”

Edgar Zazueta with the Los Angeles Unified School District said he’s glad the legislative analyst has offered lawmakers some alternatives — especially for lessening the hit to schools if voters reject Brown’s tax plan.

“While we hope the election passes [the taxes], and we’ll put all our energies there, it’s a risky proposition," said Zazueta, “so we do hope the Legislature will at least think about that.”

Zazueta said school districts have done their best to protect students from years of budget cuts. But if the triggers go through, he’s not sure they can hold back the effects.

Riverside Unified's Fine said his district cut back costs in every way it could, from cutting four days from the school year to dialing back the air conditioning and mowing the lawns less often.

“This fiscal crisis and the state’s response to it is doing irreparable harm to a whole generation of kids,” Fine lamented.

Fine said the average size of Riverside’s kindergarten through third grade classes has grown from 22 students to an expected 30 this fall. He added that the district will have to draw down all its reserves to stay afloat if the trigger cuts go through.