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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Commentary: What Does Seven Million in Budget Cuts Look Like?

DJUSD knows what it is like to try to reduce a $4.5 million deficit because they attempted to do so last year. $4.5 million would have meant at least 114 teacher layoffs, possibly a closed school, definitely some ended programs like music, art, maybe da Vinci High as well--at least as they knew it. But while Davis experienced threats, they never had to go through with it. The May revise came in better than the midyear budget estimates. The Democratic legislature restored funding cuts. Davis used one-time monies from its reserves and got a $1.7 million gift and was able to escape last year largely unfazed.

I say all of that because at its core, $4.5 million in budget cuts would have been devastating. Now imagine $7 million in cuts. That is what Woodland is facing right now. That is what the Woodland School Board did on Thursday night, they voted to reduce expenses by $7 million. That is more than twice the deficit Davis is facing right now.

How does one cut $7 million? The Woodland Daily Democrat hardly gives a vivid description of this. Although apparently the public outcry got them to restore a number of programs including the elementary music program.
"Trustees also allotted $793,773 in funds to restore several programs and positions -- two high school vice principals, zero and seventh period, the Elementary Music Program, a high school librarian, an elementary school counselor and an extra teacher for Pioneer High School's Block Scheduling -- that were set to be cut."
It continues:
"While the elementary music program was restored, the board made several reductions to other programs, school budgets and at the district level.

School sites throughout the district froze open positions and cut 10 percent of discretionary funds, the enrollment center was restructured, elementary vice principal positions were cut, and teachers were reduced along with many other cuts. After much discussion, the board agreed to close both Grafton and Willow Spring Elementary schools."
That's right Woodland voted to close two elementary schools.
"Willow Spring and Grafton elementary schools were hotly debated reductions with many parents speaking in favor of leaving the schools open, to no success.

While Trustees Carol Souza Cole and Rosario Ruiz-Dark said they were not in favor of making these decisions without more information or more community input, other trustees said the schools were already set to be closed and students would get a good education no matter where they went. The board voted 5-2, with Trustees Souza Cole and Ruiz-Dark opposing the recommended cuts."
I will leave it to our friends at the Woodland Journal to work out the rest of the details. I have heard enough. This is not about picking on Woodland. Woodland is not alone. School districts all across the state are having to make veritable Sophie's choices between closing down programs and closing down schools. Many will have to do both.

Davis is quite fortunate in a lot of different ways. Some people have suggested in light of certain decisions that they regret voting for Measure W. Well let's do the math. Without Measure W just add another $2.5 million to the deficit that Davis has. That would put Davis' deficit for next year up over $5 million. Take out the generosity of the Davis residents and their $1.7 million in donations last year. We would be looking at the kind of cuts that Woodland is right now.

In other words, Davis is fortunate. A wealthy school district, in a wealthy community that is generous and supports its schools. That is a great thing.

The horrible thing is that across the state many students are not nearly so lucky. They do not live in communities that can dip into their bank accounts like Davis did last year. Heck, Davis probably could not do it so easily this year as they did last year. The economic crisis has hit home in this state. The unemployment rate is over 10%. Tax receipts are way down. The state is slashing billions from schools. That means millions slashed from local school districts, most of whom do not get parcel tax money to make up the difference.

The result of this is that the relatively wealthy and well off students in places like Davis will get by just fine. Their community will give just enough to avoid the kind of wholesale draconian cuts that Woodland is facing. We will tighten our belts. Our teachers may have to take pay cuts or face a small number of layoffs. But at the core our programs will survive and our students will thrive.

There are people on this blog who seem to take these things for granted. They seem to believe that schools have failed us. They seem to believe that there will be no consequences from cutting billions across the state from schools. I disagree with that assessment. I don't think schools have failed us. I think we've failed our schools. Not in Davis, but across the state of California.

California ranks in the middle of the country in per pupil spending, and that was data from a few years ago before the latest round of cuts. California was below the national average. And those are in absolute dollars, it does not account for the higher cost of living in California compared to many of the states below California in per pupil spending.

There was good breakdown last year in my other publication, the California Progress Report.
“The Census Bureau numbers show that California still spends $652 less per student than the national average, even though their figures on "student spending" include funds from outside the state that never make it into the classroom, which arguably inflate the figures. The Census Bureau estimates lump in payments made into the state retirement system, as well as federal funding beyond what the state spends. But even including those calculations, California's significantly below-average spending on students is abysmal. By comparison, the non-partisan national publication Education Week issued a report showing that California spends $1,900 less than the national average, because it only includes the actual funds spent by each state on each student.”
"even though we have extremely high costs, housing in particular, our teachers are still paid below the national average on a per pupil basis: $3,479 in California - compared to the national average of $3,811."
The bottom line is that we get what we pay for. If California were near the top of the barrel in terms of students scores, then maybe, just maybe we could justify our lack of spending. But it is not. It is towards the bottom.

For years we are told that the problem is just that we pay too much on administrators. Sorry folks, the district has laid the budget numbers bare. Only a tiny percentage of DJUSD's general fund budget goes to administrators. And that percentage has gone down. Davis has cut out it's Associate Superintendent of Education Position, it has cut to the bone its fiscal office. There is nowhere else to cut. The raised salaries that people are moaning about do not amount to a hill of beans in the scheme of things--and even they are probably coming off the books and then some.

Davis is not alone. Across the state, districts have done the same. This is not pork. Many of these are essential positions and their absence requires other people to do more work for no additional pay. A lot of additional work. For years, teachers have had to purchase educational supplies out of their own pockets. The same teachers who are paid below national average per pupil--which means that we are teaching to more kids than the national average. California teachers teach to about 22 kids whereas their counterparts teach to 15 kids. Think that might make a difference in the service they receive in return?

The sad thing is that all of the numbers I have just shared with you are numbers that existed before we cuts roughly $7 billion from the state's educational budget this year on top of whatever cuts were accrued last year and the lack of COLA for increased costs of living.

We indeed balanced our budget temporarily through huge real cuts (not simply slowing down the increases to programs, but actual cuts) and tax increases, but we did at a huge cost. Go to Woodland and you can see the very human cost it is going to take.

Remember that this is the childhood of those kids. This is their education. This is their future.

One final note: Somebody had the audacity of accusing me of being a Republican yesterday because I favor fiscal responsibility in the city of Davis and will not support new taxes without an assurance of accountability and responsible new contracts for upper level city employees. What these individual apparently do not get is that we do not have the money and resources anymore to be living the way we did in the 1990s or even the 2000s. We have to pick and choose what programs to support. For me, education has to be THE priority. Everything else has to come second.

The priorities in the city of Davis are out of whack. We are sitting on a $13 million deficit of unmet needs. That's road repairs and infrastructure upgrades. If we do not get our public employee compensation and pension system under control, we cannot keep up with the things that we really need to put money into.

Sorry but there is really not one pot of money for schools and one pot for the city. It is but one pot of money and we have to make tough choices.

A liberal in these times has to be fiscally responsible because there is no money to just throw around anymore.

---David M. Greenwald reporting