In the scramble to make up a $35 billion budget deficit, Gov. Gray Davis, who once billed himself "the education governor," is proposing cuts to basic aid school districts that would virtually destroy them.
Davis, while still finding money to renovate San Quentin prison, is proposing $128 million be slashed from the 59 basic aid districts in California. These districts, which include the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, get a measly $120 per student but get to keep property tax revenues. This has greatly helped districts in affluent areas.
However, Davis' proposal, as it stands, would probably force the Mountain View-Los Altos district into receivership because the proposed takeaway of approximately $12 million for next year amounts to 33 percent of the district's annual $32 million budget. That leaves $20 million. Given that $10 million goes for straight operating costs such as utilities, $10 million remains for salaries - typically 83 percent of the budget.
Because teachers are under contract for a set pay, the only alternative is layoffs - lots of them. Superintendent Rich Fischer has already notified 39 teachers of impending layoffs because the state demands preparations for budgets without giving districts any idea of what they're going to be getting until the budget is balanced. Before it's over, the high school district could see more than 60 teacher layoffs out of a staff of 132.
Fischer was among several superintendents who met with the governor's staff March 10 to plead their case for funding. Fischer sees the governor's proposal taking the unprecedented step of "leveling down" for equitable educational financing.
We believe the governor can start from taking his proposed increase for the corrections budget and shift funds back into education. The way Fischer looks at it, the $128 million cut not only amounts to a drop in a bucket to make up $35 billion, it's only "halfway to the cost of rebuilding San Quentin."
Like Fischer, we believe the only good to come of the crisis is public response that forces the state into a better direction. So far, the governor's office has received more than 100,000 letters from supporters of basic aid districts. Thanks to the actions of Mountain View High School students, more than 1,500 students from local basic aid districts swarmed the steps of the state Capitol recently to speak out against the governor's plan.
As an aside, we are dismayed that our students and our superintendent need to spend valuable time going to Sacramento to plead our case when we have two well-paid and experienced representatives there already - Joe Simian and Byron Sher.
What are they doing?
The irony is, if the district goes into receivership, Fischer is ousted and the state sends in a trustee to run the district. Then, lo and behold, the state feeds that district additional funding to keep it afloat. We ask: Is this any way to run an education system?
The changes brought under Propositions 13 and 98 may have helped some, but they also put our public education system in a downward spiral. The budget deficit may be the final straw. Massive reform is needed, but it's ultimately up to us to demand action to make it happen.