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Tough times on the horizon for schools
December 28, 2009, 03:30 AM By Heather Murtagh
Less money is expected for education next fall, but many fail to realized the state-issued cuts will be compounded by the loss of millions in one-time federal funds which helped local districts keep a number of programs and jobs this year.

California is predicted to end the current year with a $6.3 billion deficit and faces a $20 billion budget problem in the next year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Cuts to education will most likely be part of the plan. That coupled with the loss of one-time stimulus money, much of which was used to retain positions and programs, means there are a number of tough budget decisions ahead for local school districts.

"What people don’t understand is we’re already funded at the 2004-05 level and we have 1,000 more kids,” said Dennis McBride, president of the Redwood City Elementary School District Board of Trustees.

Last year, the district made over $6 million in cuts. This was a number that could have been larger, double digits larger, but was held at bay by $4.3 million in one-time stimulus funds.

In California, the number one use of stimulus funds given toward education was retaining jobs, according to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released earlier this month. Statewide, the money created or saved 62,000. But that money will no longer exist come this summer. Requirements for accepting the one-time stimulus money has a silver lining for schools. It required the state to fund schools at the minimum level in the 2010-11 fiscal year. However, the state has already filed for a waiver to bypass the rule, which would mean larger cuts for schools.

Basically, schools have bleak budget outlook and are planning for things to get worse.

Redwood City, for example, will lose the over $4 million in federal dollars. It also expects the state to hand down necessary reductions. The district, which adopted a total budget with $78.8 million in projected revenue, expects to make $8 million to $10 million in cuts if the state announces reductions.

Not as much funding was received by the San Mateo Union High School District and most of the money went to one-time training or programs, said board President Dave Pine. There was $600,000 in stimulus funds that went into the general fund, none of which was used for positions. A major concern for San Mateo Union, which is funded through local property taxes, is the projection for a decrease in the funding mechanism next year. This decline is coupled with talk of the state expecting property-tax funded districts to make a "fair-share contribution” to other schools as a result of California’s shortfall.

Clearly the district will miss the stimulus money, said Pine, but it’s the other unknowns the district is closely watching.

The Sequoia Union High School District previously made $1.9 million in cuts this year in preparation for its fair-share contribution. At the time, officials thought the reductions could be temporary. Last week, the district shared a need to maintain those cuts in the coming year, which will not cover all the anticipated losses.

District staff suggested holding the creation of a two-year plan to deal with the budget shortcomings after the state makes announcements about the 2010-11 budget proposal next month.

Earlier this month, San Carlos Elementary School District began making cuts earlier this month with the ultimate goal of cutting $1.5 million. Reductions included layoffs, many of which take effect Feb. 1. These cuts were for a variety of issues unaffected by any state anticipated reductions.

In preparation for the looming losses, some districts are beginning to both consider and put parcel tax measures before voters. Thus far, Burlingame and San Mateo-Foster City elementary school districts moved to have all-mail ballots next year.

A seven-year renewal of a parcel tax with a $96 increase — to about $180 — will go before San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District voters in an all-mail ballot in February. A $75 parcel tax approved in 1991, which is now $87 due to built-in inflation, means about $2 million in annual district revenue and is set to end in 2010. If approved with the increase, the tax would mean $3 million annually for the district.

San Mateo-Foster City already saw its budget change mid year to the tune of $5.7 million, much of which was covered with one-time money.

Burlingame voters will also be asked to renew a $180 annual parcel tax supporting schools, set to end in 2011  in March.

The 10-year extension combines two previously-approved taxes totaling $180 — Measure A, a $76 yearly parcel tax for eight years passed in 2003, and Measure S, a $104 annual parcel tax for six years that started in 2005. With both ending in 2011, the board decided to combine the measures and extend the total amount in a parcel measure set for an all-mail ballot March 2. If passed, the measure would begin in July 2011 lasting 10 years. Annually, the tax generates $1.4 million for the district.

The San Mateo County Community College District could soon study a variety of tax options through a public survey. Quotes for such a service were requested by the board earlier this month and expected to be discussed at a meeting in January.

Parcel taxes have an ability to ensure a certain level of funding for districts but the high threshold for passing, two-thirds, presents an issue for many districts. Signatures are currently being sought for a state-wide ballot initiative to lower this threshold, a move many local education leaders are supporting.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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