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Budget Woes - OJUSD: Less School Just Not Realistic
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A month’s worth of classroom time to be cut from the school calendar was recently suggested by California Governor Jerry Brown if California voters reject his tax initiatives on the November ballot.

Brown proposed giving the option to school districts to cut up to 15 more days from the school year in order to offset what would be over $6 billion in trigger cuts in January 2013 without voter approval on the tax hikes, with schools shouldering $5.5 billion of those cuts. Some lawmakers in the state are crying foul over Governor Brown’s proposal to take deep cuts to the schools and community colleges (K-14) without the tax increases, stating that if education really is a priority then cuts could be taken elsewhere and that the threats are just to stir up the emotions of voters.

About one-third of public school districts around the state, including the Oakdale Joint Unified School District, have already cut one to five days from the 180-day school year, bringing Oakdale’s classroom time down to 175 days. However, Oakdale’s Superintendent Marc Malone said that cutting more school days is just not practical.

“They (politicians) devalue the whole education process when they say we can cut an extra 15 days off,” Malone said.

School districts were given the option to cut seven more days from the school year by the legislature last year, but none have taken that option. Superintendent Malone said that in OJUSD they feel the minimum is 175 days. He said that with less class time, instructional strategies can’t be evaluated and it’s not good for the kids to just cut more time off.

He added that the education OJUSD is providing today is not even the same as it was last year. He said that they don’t want to move backward, they want to move forward and be more effective, not less effective.

“The law of diminishing returns would apply at more than 175 days,” Malone said, adding that it would put California students at a significant disadvantage. “…It is not good for our students to only be in school for 160 days.”

Furthermore, he said they can’t just cut more time off the school calendar because school districts have bargaining agreements with classified and certificated staff. Bargaining with the school employee and teacher unions takes time, Malone noted.

“To think that a bargaining unit is going to arbitrarily agree to 15 days of reduction is just not a reality,” he said, adding, “We’ve already taken a reduction.”

Brown’s tax proposals include a temporary (four years) quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax and increase the taxes on people whose incomes are $250,000 or more. Brown said his increases will raise $9 billion in revenue, but other independent reports estimate that the increase would raise $6.8 billion.

Another tax initiative slated for the California ballot, being promoted by Los Angeles civil rights attorney Molly Munger, calls for a sliding-scale increase in taxes on nearly all wage-earners to specifically help fund schools, which is said to provide $10 billion.

Malone commented that the state has a budget gap of about $16 billion and to think that a tax increase is going to close that $15.7 billion deficit is a falsehood. He said the state needs to decrease spending, increase revenues, and then if it’s able to do that, a raise in taxes may be able to close that gap. He believes that the public needs to feel like their vote of support for a tax increase would actually make a difference. If it won’t make a difference, then there’s not much of a point.

“It’s really frustrating from a district standpoint and an employee standpoint,” Malone said. “It can’t be arbitrarily enforced… It’s hard for the public to have faith in the process when it doesn’t instill confidence.”

As it is, Malone stated that the governor’s proposed tax initiatives won’t create new funds for education. The tax initiatives are supposed to pay off deferral payments to the school districts.

OJUSD is in its fourth year of deferrals and is owed $7.8 million in deferred funds from the state, which is 20 percent of the district’s annual budget, he reported.

“We have to keep a lot of cash on hand to pay our bills,” he said.

Malone added that everyone in the district is worried. The latest proposed cut is $5.4 billion to grades K-14. That would result in a cut of $441 ADA (average daily attendance) to public school districts. That equals a $2 million cut to OJUSD.
“…We built our budget on the idea that the tax initiative will not pass. We used the worst possible case…and have built a contingent budget if it does pass.”

He added that the district has to budget for the current year and three years out to show that it can pay its bills for this year and the next three years.

Malone said that the official start of the fiscal year for the schools is July 1 and school starts in August. It’ll be December before the school districts find out if the tax initiatives pass or not.

“We have to plan for the worst and adjust for the best,” Malone said.