Home » Eve Pearlman

School budget troubles loom large for Alameda public schools

Submitted by on 1, October 30, 2009 – 6:00 am7 Comments

Photo by Jan Watten

Lest you think that everything in public school finance is peachy-keen, think again. Right now the Alameda Unified School District is living – as is almost every other California public school district –  on borrowed time. Statewide we’re talking about more than six million public school children, their opportunities for success and their hopes for decent lives. But educating a child takes a lot of resources, and we’re running out of money.

As part of a state budget compromise – remember that big ol’ stalemate? the late-night posturing? – California districts were granted license to do what’s called ‘untie categoricals.’ This odd phrase basically means that districts are authorized to take funds specifically mandated for, say, adult schools or deferred maintenance and use them for books and electricity and payroll clerks and toilet paper – all the operational nitty-gritty that goes into making schools habitable.

Over the last two fiscal years, AUSD has used close to $3 million of these previously constrained dollars. Those one-time funds are dwindling, and in 2012-13 the state’s permission to use categorical funds for operations expires.

Parcel taxes H and A, which bring in more than $7 million a year for AUSD, will expire in 2011-12. A brand new parcel tax committee, which includes John Beery (who sued the district over Measure H) as well as other representatives from the business community, will soon begin to draft a new parcel tax. But with a school budget deficit projected at $16 million in the 2012-13 school year, it is hard to imagine that a tax large enough to cover the deficit would be palatable to voters. “The parcel tax committee is working on all the dynamics of a tax,” said School Board President Mike McMahon. “The term, the amount and the structure.”

The bottom line is that the state budget crisis and chronic legislative gridlock means AUSD has many fewer state dollars to spend, and that cash flow is unpredictable. Here’s how it goes:

Before Measure H, the district expected to receive $5,700 per student in 2008-09 and over $6,000 per student in 2009-10. That’s what the state told AUSD. But in February of 2009 California passed a budget that gave AUSD only $5,600 per student for the school year already in progress. That version of the state budget, however, was tied to voter approval of several initiatives on last May’s ballot. When voters said no, the state further revised its budget, cutting per-student dollars for AUSD down to $5,200.

“Ten months into the fiscal year and they say they’re going to give us millions less,” said McMahon. “We make our budgets predicated on the state’s budget, but even after the governor has signed it they can just say we’re not going to give you a check.” But then, because state legislators couldn’t pass their revised budget before the end of school fiscal year, AUSD got a reprieve, getting $5,600 per student for the school year.

Now, in the current school year, AUSD is expecting to receive just under $5,000 per student. “But this might all change in January,” said McMahon. State revenue is already more than a billion dollars down from projections.  With less money in state coffers, and limited means to raise additional revenue at the state level, legislators may well trim their obligations to local school districts once again.

AUSD has nearly 10,000 students. Every $100 reduction in per student funding lost means roughly a million dollars less for the district. The result is that this year the district is expecting to receive from the state about $10 million less in per-student dollars than it had budgeted for, based on what the district was told by the state two years ago.

Do you have a headache?

Complicated as it is, the reason that we here in Alameda haven’t already seen the layoffs, furloughs, increases in class size, and the total elimination of sports programs that have occurred in other districts, is in good part because of A and H and because of the use of those one-time categorical funds. The ongoing crisis hasn’t gone away, though. And the problem won’t be solved until the gridlock at the state level is overcome.

Meanwhile, I can’t imagine how we’re going to close that $16 million dollar gap.


  • Steve says:

    Great article — I really appreciated seeing the dollar figures which describe the situation Alameda schools are in.

    That being said, I continue to be pessimistic that any long-term solution to Alameda's school budget problems will be found. So much of the discussion of potential solutions continues to be mis-directed, centering on either passing yet another school parcel tax or asking Sacramento for more money. Instead, we need to do some hard thinking about how we can provide Alameda kids with a quality education at a $5,500 annually per student level, or $4,500 level, or at whatever level of annual funding we’re required to work within.

    Recently, I’ve spoken with lots of folks involved in education, public safety and general administration who work for the State or for local governments like Alameda. All have told me that further cuts are not possible and that the only solution is more taxes. Yet, the fact is that, although everybody in California may want a pony, state and local governments just can’t afford to buy everyone a pony.

    Right now state sales and income tax receipts have dropped dramatically. So have property taxes due to home foreclosures and homeowner-requested reductions. The official unemployment rate in California is almost 13% and, in truth, the real rate is more likely closer to 20%.

    Let’s face it, as much as we may not want to admit it, California is broke. We’ve reached the point where focusing on more parcel taxes or help from Sacramento is a waste of time. Our efforts need to focus on how to best educate our kids within the reduced budgets we’re going to have to live within for many years to come.

  • David Howard says:

    Can the Island do some background investigative work into Beery and his connections to the school board? I have long said that his lawsuit was a "spoiler" lawsuit intended to make the Borikas case difficult to win. And now he's on this new parcel tax committee….

  • David Kirwin says:

    I'd like to hear more about the MH resolution and what the committee is doing. When and where are these public meetings being held?

  • Mark Dietrich says:

    Further proof of the insanity of the effort to recall the AUSD Board Members who voted for Lesson 9. The AUSD must pay for any special election, not the state nor the county nor city. How will AUSD pay for the special election, given this unprecedented funding crisis?

  • Dave Kirwin says:

    Mark – Further proof that any of those BOE members should reconsider because AUSD has already decided to replace the lesson anyway!

    This time AUSD has a much broader committee, who I think will find a better, more inclusive curriculum. I certainly am disappointed that it is still only looking at K-5.

    That these 3 public representatives on our BOE are sticking with their egos instead of focusing on the improved program is not the fault of anyone except Mooney, Tam and Jensen. They should get with the program instead of standing by their prejudiced decision of allowing an intolerant, exclusive committee to determine a lesson plan on tolerance and inclusion. It was ridiculous the way that 1st committee was established and allowed to run their private meetings and exclude everyone with a different opinion.

    Clearly any of those 3 could stop the lawsuit, but they are choosing to continue their crusade. THEY went on the march foolishly and are still going in the wrong direction. They are the ones who you should ask to talk to.

    Although the New Curriculum committee is already established, I believe it is open to the public (to silently observe only). It has its next meeting tomorrow morning at 9am at Longfellow. I am happy to be working collaboratively to help find a much better program. Real collaboration is an approach which AUSD has fortunately taken on this issue. I hope the same can be said for the MH resolution group. When and where is their next meeting?

  • David Howard says:

    The folks that run the AEF and try to drive these parcel taxes every other year are politically and family-connected to power brokers in Sacramento – to Garamendi, to Perata – whoops! Perata's out of Sacramento, now running for Mayor of Oakland.

    All these years have passed since the base closed, and these local people, instead of plying the halls of the Capitol in Sacramento to equalize the state funding for Alameda, to adjust for the money lost when the Navy left, keep promoting local parcel taxes instead.

    And it's the same local power establishment that fights elementary school consolidation out of fear that their dearest little ones might have to leave Franklin, Edison or Otis and rub elbows with some ESL or inter-district transfer students at Washington, Haight or Paden schools.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks Eve,

    This helped me understand the numbers better! —-"AUSD has nearly 10,000 students. Every $100 reduction in per student funding lost means roughly a million dollars less for the district."

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