School districts are grappling with an excruciating dilemma: whether to plan for the coming school year based on the assumption that taxpayers will approve tax increases in a special election in June, or on an equally uncertain assumption that they will reject it.
For school districts, this is not just a matter of political prognostication. By state law, they have to issue pink slips to teachers they don’t plan to rehire by March 15 – months before they know the outcome of the planned election.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the initiative hasn’t even been placed on the ballot yet. In order to get the needed two-thirds vote from the Legislature to do, some Republican lawmakers will have to vote for it – a dubious prospect in the current political environment.
As a result, thousands of teachers could get layoff notices this spring, even though Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a budget that contains no significant cuts for K-12 schools for the coming school year (although it also includes billions more in payment deferrals and no cost of living increases).
“I am running on two train tracks here,” Larry Powell, superintendent of Fresno County schools, told California Watch. “I am planning for a status quo budget and a devastating budget.”
He said he is recommending that districts in his county “seriously consider” sending out more layoff notices than they need to, and then if necessary rescind them in June after the special election that Brown hopes to call.
“It is a tough call because it is absolutely demoralizing for teachers, because they have to stick around for a month or two without knowing if you they have a job.”
Michael Watenpaugh, superintendent of San Rafael City Schools, is taking the more conservative route. “We will have to make cuts as if we do not have the dollars from the proposed ballot initiatives,” he wrote in a message posted on the district’s website. "This means more staff layoffs and cuts to student services.
"Based on what we know today, this means we will have to develop two different budgets, one given passage of the tax extension, and one given the tax measure fails."
Elk Grove Associate Superintendent Rich Fagan told the Sacramento Bee that his district will be planning for the “worst case scenario,” although just figuring out what that scenario is in dollar terms is a challenge in itself. "We're still trying to nail down what the worst is," Fagan said. "What is that magic number?"
Paul Hefner, a spokesman for newly elected state schools chief Tom Torlakson, said that the California Department of Education “acknowledges that districts are “in a very, very difficult situation."
“Most initiatives fail,” Hefner said. “Anyone trying to convince voters to support something has their work cut out for them.”
Referring to the odds of voters approving the tax extensions proposed by Gov. Brown, Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said, “There is reason to believe that they have a fighting chance, but I wouldn’t say the odds are great.”
He said what is different now compared to voter rebuffs of tax measures during the Schwarzenegger years is that “you have to think that voters will look at each proposal and give it some thought, knowing that the stakes are higher" than in previous elections.
But he cautioned that even though “voters understand the depth of the state’s financial problems, that doesn’t mean they are willing to dig into their pockets to continue these tax surcharges."
In next couple of months leading up to March 15, school officials will read the political tea leaves as they try to figure out what voters are likely to do. More than $2 billion of school funding lie in the balance, along with the jobs of thousands of teachers and other school personnel, and the prospect of further shrinkage of the school year and larger class sizes.