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Schools by the numbers

By: Donjä Marie Garvey, Guest Columnist
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With the passing of the California state budget, there was an immediate sigh of relief that at last, flawed and historically late, our legislature had managed to work through thorny issues, partisanship and posturing, to deliver a budget that left education funding relatively unscathed from threatened cuts. Media bulletins flashed highlights and abbreviated information. School Services of California, a respected source of financial and business management in education, quickly issued an update predicting the baseline funding to be $275 more per student than planned and expected in local school budgeting. Here in Placer County, our schools received the news as the community did. Rocklin Unified’s Assistant Superintendent Barbara Patterson is head of Business Services for the district. Her first reaction echoed the initial news about the budget. “If what the governor signed into law holds, it is very positive for us.” But Patterson sagely noted before there could be a second breath of gratitude and relief, that it was a very big “if.” Seasoned in education budgeting, Patterson went back to research articles from two years ago, in a similar budget year situation. Her findings confirmed that “this feels very familiar. The budget assumptions didn’t hold then, and we’re in worse shape now.” Wendy Lang, president of the RUSD Board of Trustees, had the same take on the new budget. “At first glance, it is an improvement to the May revise,” Lang said. “It allocates more revenue to local districts. However, it is built on assumptions of increases to state revenue and federal funding that are not guaranteed.” The outpouring of skepticism appears to be universal in education circles. Many key analysts are reacting with natural relief that there is a semblance of fiscal stability with budget enactment, but strong criticism of the continuing reliance on financial and accounting maneuvers giving another unstable budget that only pushes the problems to the future — again. Patterson shares the same perspective that the budget is based on overly optimistic assumptions on one-time Federal help and state revenue figures from improving economic recovery. “It’s also an election year,” Patterson said. “So most of us are waiting until January to see what really happens.” Patterson chuckles, “I’d love to celebrate (the budget). But we’re dealing in reality with budgets for our district.” She notes that “we have to come up with a Plan A and a Plan B. If they do take money away, we would be prepared with available solutions to minimize any cuts.” The shaky budget issues haven’t affected Rocklin families and students like less fortunate districts and schools. But there are a few cost-cutting signals in the classrooms. One Whitney High School parent confided that “if you bring in a ream of paper, you’re a hero!” Yet from the major to the minor in school budgeting, it does make voting this year more significant. Thoughtfully considering candidates who will be again reworking the education budget becomes an important decision for parents and community. And if those fiscal numbers and assumptions are only placebos in an election year, it’s time to ask more hard questions and press for answers not built on suppositions. Donja Garvey is a former teacher and is involved in education, nonprofits and foundations. This new monthly column is devoted to educational issues in the Rocklin community. If you are an educational leader or want to hear from one, let Garvey know what is concerning you the most, both locally and nationally. Please keep it brief and send to donja.garvey@gmail.com.