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Oakland Unified School District

State’s late budget may set back Oakland schools

on October 13, 2010

Most teachers wouldn’t accept an assignment that was turned in over three months late. But when it comes to the California budget, which was passed last Friday after a record-breaking 100-day delay, schools don’t really have a choice.

“My initial reaction is thank heaven we have a budget, because now we can plan,” said Oakland school board representative Jody London during a phone interview on Monday. “I don’t want at all to discredit how hard it was, but I’m a little distressed. There can be a ripple effect throughout the economy when this type of thing happens, when budgets get withheld. You see it in people not issuing requests for proposals, or companies laying people off.”

Before the state finalized its budget on Friday, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) had already made $122 million in cuts for the 2010-2011 school year, and had scheduled several child development centers for closure. Superintendant Tony Smith had called the further cuts “a possibility,” a scenario which district officials now say will be unlikely. “Public education in California is still dramatically underfunded, but at least this particular budget is not as devastating as some of the previous versions,” said Troy Flint, the OUSD’s director of public relations, adding that the district had planned for a “worst-case budget scenario.”

During Friday morning’s press conference at the Capitol, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said that education was one of the state’s “key priorities” in the new budget. “We protected education kindergarten through 12th [grade] education,” he said. “We funded it at the same levels as last year.”

Despite matching last year’s funding for schools, the final budget earmarks $4.3 billion less for education than is mandated by Proposition 98, which was passed in 1988 and is supposed to guarantee that a certain percentage of the state budget is reserved for education, based partially on the previous year’s budget. Under these rules, California schools should have received $53.8 billion, rather than the $49.5 billion set aside in recently approved document.

The new budget restores funding to state programs like early childhood education, which was severely cut back in previous versions of the budget. In Oakland, the district was slated to lose 73 percent of its funding for child development centers based on the governor’s May budget revision. Due to these anticipated budget cuts, OUSD was set to close eight centers at the beginning of this school year, but granted all but one, Golden Gate Child Development Center, a last-minute extension.  District officials say that it is too soon to say whether Golden Gate will reopen now that funding has been restored.

Yet although state early childhood educationfunding has been restored, there is no guarantee that child development centers will see that money, said Lynne Rodezno, the OUSD director of early childhood education. “Our enrollment has been negatively impacted by the talk around closing some of the centers that occurred due to the May budget revision,” Rodezno said. “Parents had to find alternatives when they weren’t sure whether a center would be open or closed, so our numbers suffered. Even if we have a contract for a certain amount of money, we need to have the daily enrollment to earn that contract.” Schools currently receive funding from the state based on the number of students who attend daily.

OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith is expected to talk about the impact of the newly passed state budget on the district during this Wednesday’s school board meeting. Other topics to be covered during the meeting include the future of the district’s child development centers, although this item was placed on the agenda before news of the state budget’s restoration of funding for early childhood education.

To some educators, however, the new state budget is both too little and too late for schools. “By their not passing a state budget, it doesn’t allow the individual school sites to plan, nor does it allow the district to plan for the next year’s budget,” said Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High School, located in North Oakland. “We do our jobs and we don’t have a choice about that, but it seems like the legislature isn’t doing the job that they’re elected to do.” Reyes said that schools have faced staffing challenges as a result of budget uncertainties, and many have had to lay off teachers. “I’m teaching more students with fewer teachers than last year,” she said.

The belated budget has called heightened attention to Proposition 25, which will appear on the November statewide ballot, and would amend the California constitution to allow the state legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote. The proposition would also dock lawmaker’s pay in the event that a state budget is not passed on time.  Currently, California is one of only three states that require a two-thirds vote, or “supermajority,” to pass a state budget.

Opponents say that Proposition 25 will make politicians more vulnerable to special interests and make it easier for the state to raise taxes, while supporters argue that it will not lower the two-thirds majority required to raise taxes, but will prevent budget gridlock.

As the debate over Proposition 25 rages on, OUSD employees are getting ready to start planning with the state money they have been promised, even though they may not actually receive until the new fiscal year, which starts next July. Some, like Reyes, remain skeptical. “I don’t anticipate ever seeing that money,” she said.

Image: Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) cut $122 million in its 2010-2011 budget earlier this year in anticipation of the California budget, which was passed on Friday, over 100 days late. Due to the delay, OUSD closed the Golden Gate Child Development Center, pictured here earlier in the summer. Photo by Whitney Pennington

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