School budget troubles loom large for Alameda public schools
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.