Louis Freedberg/California WatchState schools chief Tom Torlakson at his inauguration at Mt. Diablo High School.
Tom Torlakson, the new state superintendent of public instruction, chose to be inaugurated in the gymnasium at Mount Diablo High School in Concord where he used to teach – a school district that like many others around the state, faces a perilous financial future.
Torlakson once taught biology at the school, and was coach for the cross-country and track programs. He is still technically on leave from the school. The master of ceremonies for the event, Tim Sbranti, the mayor of Dublin who also teaches at Dublin High, joked that after eight years as state superintendent Torlakson might even return to Mt. Diablo to take up his former position.
That would be based on the assumption that the school district would have any positions to offer him. The boisterous atmosphere of the event could not obscure the profound fiscal uncertainties facing Torlakson's old district, and many others like it around the state.
At a meeting just before the Christmas holidays, the district filed a "qualified certification" with the Contra Costa County Office of Education, which means the district has has enough funds to get through this year and the next, but could face insolvency in the year after that. Qualified certification is a step short of the dreaded "negative certification" which would mean that the district didn't have funds to finish out the current school year.
The number of school districts who have either qualified or negative certifications has increased dramatically in recent years. In the last report issued by the state, for the 2009-10 school year, 160 districts [PDF] had received a qualified certification and 14 a negative certification, up from a mere 19 and three respectively in 2006-07.
Mike Hulsizer, chief deputy for governmental affairs in the Kern County Office of Education, predicted that California schools' fiscal situation is only going to get worse for any number of reasons, including the unlikely prospect that the state will ever pay $1.7 billion in deferred payments promised in this year's budget. "We will probably see a huge number of districts receiving 'qualified certifications'" he said.
A qualified certification is more than just bureaucratic jargon, said Bob Blattner of Blattner & Associates, a Sacramento-based education consulting firm. "It is extremely serious," he said. "It is like pneumonia, if you take care of yourself you are going to get better, but if you don't, you are in big trouble."
Trouble is what school officials throughout the state are bracing themselves for in Gov. Jerry Brown 2011-12 budget, which he is required to announce next Monday.
Like many other districts, Mt. Diablo is already deeper in the hole since the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to a budget last October for the current school year.
Schwarzenegger immediately eliminated funding for mental health services for special education students that were formerly covered by the county. That means that the school district must come up with an additional $4.8 million to cover those services, which are mandated by federal law. Officials also fear that a $250 reduction in funding for every student that was supposed to be restored will be made permanent, putting another $8.5 million dent in the district's budget.
"My job is to make sure that we don't go into bankruptcy, and make the cuts necessary to avoid that," Mt. Diablo schools Superintendent Steven Lawrence.
"We are a microcosm of what is happening statewide," said Gary Eberhart, chairman of the Mt. Diablo Unified School district, as he waited in line to congratulate Torlakson on his election to statewide office.
But he refused to accept that the district would be forced into bankruptcy. That would mean accepting an interest-bearing loan from the state – assuming the state was even in a position to make one – and living for years under the supervision of a state administrator. A loan "is not a gift," he said, and would only "solve the problem in the short term."
"We have a fiduciary responsibility as board members to produce a balanced budget," he said.
He noted that the district has already closed schools, raised class sizes, and made a variety of other cuts. Employees have not gotten cost of living increases in several years, let alone raises.
Part of the problem is the state's irrational and inequitable funding of school districts, Eberhart complained. He said that Mt. Diablo was one of the lowest funded districts in the state. If it were to receive comparable funding to nearby Acalanes Union High School District in Lafayette, he said his district would have $51 million more to play with.
Torlakson attributed his old district's plight to the state's "neglect" of public education. He told California Watch that there were a number of cost saving measures districts could introduce, such as reducing energy costs by installing solar panels and establishing better partnerships with cities and counties.
In addition, he said, voters will have to be willing to endorse revenue-generating measures at the ballot box. Whether they will be willing to do so remains an open question – one which school officials around the state are asking themselves in their increasingly frequent moments of despair.