Combing through the budget

At next week’s Board meeting we will be asked to approve the district’s budget for the 2009-10 school year, so I’ve been spending a lot of time combing through the massive and complex document with the guidance of district staff. On June 16, the Budget and Business Services Committee met (joined by the rest of the Board) in order to hear a presentation from Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh, Chief Financial Officer Joe Grazioli and Budget Director Reeta Madhavan. The next evening, Mr. Leigh and Ms. Madhavan hosted a Community Forum for members of the public to hear the details of the budget proposal and ask questions (perhaps 30 people attended).

Given the general budget horror show we’ve been watching for months, it’s somewhat strange that the budget the Board is considering for next year is not all that painful. This week, the Board for the San Jose Unified School District voted unanimously to raise K-2 class sizes to 30 and lay off almost 100 teachers. By comparison, we have rescinded every layoff notice issued earlier in the year; I would say authorizing an  increase in  K-1 class sizes from 20 to 22 is by far the most painful budget decision we have made since I came on the Board.

Ms. Madhavan and Mr. Leigh reported to the Board that 117 California school districts have already told the state that they will have trouble meeting or will fail to meet their fiscal obligations over the next three years; more are certain to follow in the coming months as the state’s fiscal picture continues to worsen.  So why is San Francisco not in the kind of financial distress we are starting to see in districts around the state? There are two primary reasons:

  • Support from the City’s Rainy Day Fund. The 2008-09 budget included $19.2 million from the City thanks to the establishment of this fund; in 2009-10  we are projected to receive $24.6  million.
  • Stimulus funds from the Federal Government. We are eligible for three “chunks” of stimulus dollars under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA): one is from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) –$33.5 million ; one is for Title I-approved uses — $8.7 million; and one is for uses approved under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act  (IDEA) — $13.2 million.

No one should think, however, that we are anywhere near the end of this crisis–Mr. Leigh and Ms. Madhavan also reported that the “out years” — 2010-11 and 2o11-12 — look awful indeed. We have no expectation of additional stimulus funds and believe the City’s Rainy Day Fund will be mostly exhausted after this coming fiscal year. The Superintendent is projecting that we will have to make between $30 and $60 million in cuts by the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year. I cannot over-emphasize how painful those cuts could be. Home to school or afterschool transportation? Gone or significantly reduced. Elementary class sizes below 30? A thing of the past. We could be asked to cut the school year by as much as a full week, to cut Public Education Enrichment Funds (PEEF) going to libraries, arts, sports and music in order to preserve core programs, and/or to sustain devastating cuts to essential programs that require a contribution from the general fund, like special education, student nutrition and even Child Development, our preschool program.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud looming on the horizon is the fact that we have time — something that districts like San Jose, already forced to make massive cuts, don’t have. The plan is to start sketching out proposed cuts for 2010-11 much earlier than in previous budget cycles — as early as September or October of this year. Early preparation will allow us ample time to engage the community and examine all possible options with the goal of getting through the coming crisis with as little long-term damage to students and programs as possible.

I would say that my greatest disappointment with next year’s budget is that despite an infusion of stimulus funds specifically targeted for special education, we will not be able to put in place any significant reforms that require additional funding.  Specifically, I was pushing for significantly expanded professional development for special education teachers and paraprofessionals. The Superintendent assures us that Prop. A will provide some support in this area, and we have also agreed to provide expanded professional development opportunities for all of our paraprofessionals (18 hours a year for everyone, whether they work in general education, special education or the Child Development Program). This is an important step, and I don’t want to minimize it, but I also have to say I was hoping for MUCH more.

The situation with special education in every district is very tough. The Federal government does not fully fund its obligation under IDEA and neither does the state, so local school districts are left to make the numbers work. Differentiated and individualized support of students with extra needs can be very expensive, and sometimes there is simply not enough money to provide optimal programs. Lawsuits add to the tab because parents sometimes sue to ensure their child’s needs are met.

To cut to the chase, it turns out that despite increasing the annual contribution from the general fund to balance the special education budget, and devoting ALL of our IDEA stimulus funds to new special education programs (we’re actually only obligated to put 50% of those funds towards new programming; the rest can be used to “backfill” necessary contributions from the general fund), there is no money left for expanding professional development opportunities. It’s going to be entirely taken up with opening up 12 new classrooms across the district, hiring the necessary teachers and aides to staff those classrooms, and expanding the amount of money we pay as tuition for students who attend private programs at public expense.  I will go into the details of the special education budget and the explanations behind these tough choices in my next post.

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