With cupboards already stripped bare, Calaveras Unified School District administrators and staff are again rolling up their sleeves to do more with a lot less. As Gov. Jerry Brown made his unusual action Dec. 13 to slash about $980 million from this fiscal year’s state budget, school districts are facing the reality that they won’t receive any more transportation funding.
The cuts affect all school districts in the state. Gloria Carrillo, the chief business official for the Bret Harte Union High School District, told board members there that they will have to make a decision as the cuts come.
“There’s not a heck of a lot left for them to take,” she said, “but we’ll probably lose our transportation funding, and if we do that, we will have to make a decision – do we continue to fully fund transportation out of our general fund?”
Cutting student transportation funding midyear isn’t sitting well with school administrators at CUSD, mostly because cuts from budgets already approved by county and state education officials are nearly impossible to make.
“This is an inequitable hit,” Mike Merrill, assistant superintendent of business services, told trustees Dec. 13, the same day Brown announced his budget ax was swinging. “The budget was a fallacy that provided false hope.”
Merrill spoke with trustees as part of his First Interim Report, the first of four quarterly reports school districts prepare to assure the state that they will be able to meet financial obligations. He said that while education might be “spared” a projected cut to revenue limit funding, Brown’s targeting of transportation will make uneven a playfield that state law says should be level.
“They (lawmakers in Sacramento) are truly making access to education imbalanced,” Merrill said.
He said that smaller rural districts like those in the foothills spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in getting kids to school and back home each day. He said the inequity comes when a cut like this comes to a mammoth district like Los Angeles Unified – the second-largest in the nation – which, if it were to stop busing students might mean children would walk to school.
“We can’t do that with our students in West Point and Rail Road Flat, not to mention getting kids to Toyon or the high school,” he said.
Calaveras Unified will lose almost $700,000 in transportation funding, effective Feb. 1. Merrill said CUSD will use reserves to backfill the cut this year, but more belt-tightening is required.
Calaveras Unified, the largest and only unified district in the county – with about 3,300 students in class – has seen an exodus of students slow a bit, Merrill said. Since the 2002-’03 school year, nearly 400 fewer students attend class at CUSD schools and there were 46 fewer children enrolled when school started this year. Merrill told trustees he has projected the district might lose 25 students per year in his budgets for the next three years.
Also worrisome, is whether the “trigger cuts” – so named because they come about if the state doesn’t meet what Merrill called “rosy” expectations – would become annual reductions educators might face again in June.
Trustees voted to return six teachers to classes this year – returning them from layoff status. But in his narrative given to trustees, Merrill is still worried the barrel hasn’t been scraped clean.
“Our concern now is looking toward the mid-December and early January timeline that the state uses to make midyear cuts to our funding,” he wrote.
“When we build a budget,” Merrill explained Thursday, “we have to take the information the state gives us and look three years out. They (the Legislature) don’t have to do that. They simply look at only one year at a time.”
As school districts follow contracts with teachers and classified staff, they are bound by specific timelines for executing layoffs if they appear necessary to manage budgetary shortfalls. As the fiscal year progresses – and revenues appear to fall short of expectations – the governor and Legislature send down more reductions to funding midyear, and that can leave districts short on cash to make payroll. Deferred payments from the state – some delayed for more almost a year – can also hamper the bottom line.
In October, CUSD was $856,614 in the red and Merrill projected that in March of 2012, he will see the register at just over $1 million to the negative. As payments come in from the state, those negatives are mostly returned to even, but the projections currently have the district chipping away at its reserves.
The state requires districts to maintain a 3 percent reserve fund, but the Legislature allowed administrators to whittle down to 1 percent reserves last year. CUSD did not allow its reserves to dip that low. Merrill has an 8.96 percent reserve built into the 2010-’11 budget and there is a projected 9.71 percent reserve account planned for next year (provided all the “trigger cuts” don’t happen). The deficit spending starts to show up in the ’12-’13 spending plan, where reserves begin to dip at 6.02 percent, not enough to make monthly payroll, which amounts to about $1.3 million.
“Deferrals are a part of daily life,” Merrill said. “We have to be well aware of our fiscal position with regard to cash flow. The days of regular payments from taxes and the state are gone.”
“We should hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst,” he concluded. “I believe this district has done a tremendous job taking care of kids. The bottom line is that our kids deserve better.”
He then asked teachers, trustees and staff at the meeting to contact legislators to voice their concerns about what continuing cuts are doing to classrooms.
“We vote for them and they need to represent us,” he said.
Contact Mike Taylor at email@example.com.
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