The budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed last week is based on optimistic revenue projections and contained a last-minute education bill [PDF] that grants protections for teachers.
But if the anticipated revenue doesn't come in, school districts face up to $1.75 billion in cuts at the end of the year. The budget deal allows districts to shorten their school years by seven days to cut costs, but they would need union approval to reduce teacher salaries accordingly.
The budget triggers funding cuts if the anticipated revenue isn’t raised by Dec. 15. The budget assumes the state will bring in up to $4 billion in the coming months. However, if the state can't come up with at least $3 billion, the budget triggers initial cuts up to $600 million. If less than $2 billion comes in, up to $1.9 billion would be cut in K-12 and community college funding.
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Allowing districts to shorten the school year would save approximately $1.5 billion. But the education bill signed into law as part of the state budget would not suspend collective bargaining agreements, and it prevents teacher layoffs during the next fiscal year. So if districts want to shorten the school year, they would need teachers unions to accept the pay cuts needed to shave off the days.
“We have nothing to bargain with,” said William Habermehl, superintendent of Orange County schools. “Bargaining is a give-and-take proposition. What do we have to bargain with? 'Trigger' is right. It’s putting a gun to our head.”
Districts also are required to maintain staffing and program levels according to the current optimistic budget projections. This is frustrating for districts that were planning to rehire recently laid-off teachers but now fear they might get stuck with teachers they won’t be able to afford.
Last week, the California School Boards Association sent a letter to the governor's office expressing frustration with the education bill. Among other complaints, the authors said the legislation "severely reduces the ability of districts to manage their own resources."
For teachers unions, the budget is a reprieve from several rounds of funding cuts. Dean E. Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, told the Sacramento Bee that the bill stems the tide of an estimated 30,000 job losses that teachers have faced since the recession began and “provides stability for students and teachers."
Asked if teachers would accept salary cuts, association spokeswoman Sandra Jackson wrote in an e-mail:
“Teachers across California have been taking cuts to their salaries and health benefits while paying more out of their own pockets to purchase classroom supplies and materials for their students. Many have seen the school year shortened by 5-7 days, more students squeezed into their classrooms and educational programs dwindle or vanish altogether. Teachers will do what they can to help provide the best education possible to students."
Habermehl said shortening the school year would be “catastrophic” for students and working parents but said his district would have no other choice, pointing out that salaries account for roughly 80 percent of district budgets.
“What, are you going to tell the Edison company, 'We’re not going to pay the light bill?' ” he said. “We virtually have nothing left. We’ve eliminated everything else. The cupboard is bare. We only have one place to get it – salaries.”
Reducing the school year and increasing class sizes are the two ways districts usually save significant amounts of money. Class sizes are fast approaching state limits or are in danger of violating safety codes. And California already has one of the shortest school years in the country.
Bigger classes and shorter school years typically mean students get less individual attention, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. He said there’s currently limited research on the topic, but shorter school years often mean students don’t master the skills taught at the end of the year, skills that are often the most challenging and important for advancing to the next grade level.
To a certain extent, technology can mitigate some of the negative effects, Kirst said. He points to a website called khanacademy.org that helps students get answers to specific questions about math.
Ironically, he said, “because (classrooms) are so jammed with students, they have trouble fitting in computers. And laptops are too expensive. Class sizes are jumping from 20 to 35 students. To get around these problems, you need to change your technology of teaching. But that would require infrastructure investments.”