How schools operate while belt-tightening

Another View
By: Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, Placer County Superintendent of Schools
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Recently, the Auburn Journal published editorials calling for education leaders to “step up” to solve the looming budget crisis. I agree with the Auburn Journal when it suggested we consider “both sides of the ledger” to deal with the “state budget mess (that) is a trickle-down disaster that shows few signs of improving.” The fiscal realities of school budgets are sobering – per pupil revenues for districts in California have plummeted in recent years and are projected to go even lower. Every school board in Placer County has long been determining priorities, cost efficiencies and reductions to maintain fiscal stability. Today, it is not about what we need to do, it is about what we must do. A direct result of the “state budget mess” is multiple years of revenue limit reductions, which for a district like Auburn Union, translated this year into a per pupil spending cut of $1,373 or a 22.5 percent reduction in state revenue. And as budget planning for 2010-2011 begins, projected revenue cuts for most districts in Placer County will be at least 20 percent. What makes 2010-11 such an important planning year is the one-time funding increases resulting from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dollars, reduced reserve requirements, class size reduction alternatives and flexibility of previously restricted funding that will be coming to an end in the multi-year budget cycle unless extended by legislation. Along with this reduction of revenue, several districts in Placer County are also experiencing the ongoing revenue drain due to declining student enrollment. One-time revenue sources like ARRA helped this year to buffer the cut to revenue limits. There continues to be the potential of more one-time federal dollars such as Race to the Top, and of an Education Fund connected to the Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 to help next year. Key word with federal funding: one-time. An infusion of one-time dollars does little to help the on-going needs associated with a district’s fixed costs which in many instances were built on a student population which has either left or has yet to materialize. Throughout many communities in our county, parents, foundations and local businesses have been giving directly to schools and education foundations. However, schools without federal funds would be lucky to cover 2 percent of the revenue reduction with donations. One-time revenue sources help in the short term, but until the state’s revenue base for schools rebounds, which now is based primarily upon volatile personal income and sales taxes, significant revenue reductions will be the norm for some time. Unless the funding model changes, experts are predicting that per student funding will not be restored to 2007-08 levels for several more years. So what is PCOE’s role in assisting school district experiencing fiscal instability? Over a decade ago in response to districts heading toward insolvency, county superintendents were authorized to monitor school districts’ budgets. This authority, known as AB 1200 Fiscal Oversight, requires the county superintendent to approve or disapprove a district’s budget, to assign a fiscal adviser to a fiscally unstable district, and to have stay or rescind power if action by a school board is inconsistent with the ability of the district to meet its financial obligations in the current and subsequent year. If these actions do not reverse the trend, the worst case scenario is that the district must request the legislature for an emergency loan, resulting in having the superintendent dismissed, the school board become advisory and having a state administrator appointed to run the district. So what can PCOE do to help districts hit by revenue cuts to keep the state from taking them over? Clearly, we are not a bank. We are not the federal government that can bail out a state or a state government that can take over a school district. But we can help every Placer County school district by providing staff development, human resources, business services and technology assistance. We can sponsor workshops with experts who can assist boards to govern, respond to the governor’s budget, or explore other options such as helping interested districts on reorganization. We can provide experts to work with school districts during a crisis. We can oversee expenditures to ensure that funds are spent and saved wisely. My next column, to be published tomorrow, explores the impact reduced revenue is having on school district expenditures. Gayle Garbolino-Mojica is the Placer County superintendent of schools