But thanks to healthy reserves much of the severity has missed Palo Alto schools.
Not so in some neighboring districts and districts and schools statewide.
Increasingly, educators and their supporters — in a blend of hope and dread — are looking to the Nov. 6 outcome of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's bail-out balancing act of cuts and taxes.
Cash-strapped California has made direct cuts to school funding and made "deferrals," cuts that someday will be paid back to local districts. Someday. Most cuts come in the form of reductions in per-pupil reimbursements, to which Palo Alto is not immune.
Since 2008-09, per-pupil funding for Palo Alto students has fallen by $1,355, or 10 percent, while enrollment has climbed by 9 percent, from 11,431 to 12,466 this fall. Any beginning-math student can read the handwriting on the whiteboard.
It's not just this year's cuts that hurt. It's the cut-after-cut drumbeat since 2009 — earlier for some districts — that creates a sense of discouragement and loss that educators don't talk about much, in public at least.
The real cost of the cuts can't be measured only in dollars and lost programs. There are intangible yet real impacts on people's lives: those who chose education as their profession, who spent years becoming trained, and who are idealistically dedicated to quality education.
Yes, there are burned-out, worn-out and not-so-dedicated teachers and administrators.
Yet over years of covering communities and schools as a reporter and editor the vast majority of those I've known have a deep and abiding sense of commitment to their students, parents and the effects of their endeavors.
Now we face a sad new world of diminishing resources, ironically at a time when the cry is loudest to improve education to meet worldwide competition. While statistics-heavy budget reports mention "cutting programs" they actually mean staff, thus increasing class sizes or reducing support services and training.
Those cut almost always are the newest staff, the bright, most enthusiastic teachers. Those are teachers whose enthusiasm is not yet damped down by school bureaucracy, overly entitled parents and critical blogs and tweets — sniper shots from the anonymous undergrowth of today's social-network.
But even Palo Alto's deep reserves of $12.7 million won't last. This year's "flat" budget calls for use of nearly $5.6 million to stave off major cuts if Prop. 30 fails — in addition to $2.5 million in "budget solutions" (translation: cuts).
If Prop. 30 passes, only about $276,000 would come from reserves. But that would be followed by a $2.4 million bite in 2013-14 followed by $5.8 million and $4.1 million respectively in the following two years.
"The estimated fund balance available to mitigate future budget cuts of $12.7 million will be fully exhausted by the end of 2014-15" if Prop. 30 fails, this year's budget summary warns. If it passes, the gap-filler reserves will still be exhausted by the end of 2015-16, unless the landscape changes.
One bright spot is that property assessments already are higher than the 2 percent projected in the conservative budget, at a 5.3 percent increase, but there's a lag between assessments and revenues. Palo Alto also is blessed by $11.9 million from a voter-approved parcel tax and by $4.5 million in donations from a community dedicated to great schools — which relate to high residential property values.
Other districts are not so fortunate. Many residents can't afford substantial donations, and getting a new tax approved is difficult.
Some districts face what one administrator in a sprawling rural county called "horrific" cuts if Prop. 30 fails and there is no equivalent relief package forthcoming from a polarized state.
School districts in the rural region have lost $22 million in the past five years and face losing millions more, including cuts even if Prop. 30 is approved.
Yet the true long-term impact may not be in dollars but in an intangible loss.
"I think there's a sadness. It is demoralizing," the administrator said in a recent conversation. "You know, we've spent our careers trying to ensure that we've got quality education for children, and now we're dismantling programs that make a difference."
With teacher layoffs, careers are being ended as class sizes increase.
"We're seeing the brightest, our youngest folks who are coming into the profession, and they're coming in at a time when we're saying to them, 'We can't continue'" under the longstanding "last-in-first-out" rule.
"What a loss in terms of impact. You're seeing a generation of children who are not getting the same benefit that the generation before got."
That loss may not be fully visible yet to the public — ironically because of the educators' dedication.
"We've made do," one administrator said — adapting to cuts as they arrived to keep quality high. "We continue to make do for kids because ... that's been our passion for the entire course of our careers. ... The public doesn't see a significant difference because we continue to figure it out." In some ways, educators "have been our own worst enemies" by being dedicated and resourceful.
But the added loss of hundreds of dollars more in per-pupil funding could mean shortening the school year by up to three weeks for some districts.
"That's what we could see. And do we really believe that, in comparison to other countries, what we want in the United States is for our kids to receive three weeks less of school?" the first administrator said.
Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly agrees that educators have "worked hard to keep cuts away" from students. "We know times are tough for schools," even though Palo Alto is not as badly off as many other districts, he said.
He acknowledged the impact on teachers and administrators, noting that a former superintendent, the late Don Phillips, faced cuts during his last two years in Palo Alto that were "a tremendous source of sadness" for him — a sadness shared by many other educators today.
"The harder part is that it feels that it's disproportionate, that education is getting cut more than other areas. That makes it harder for educators," Skelly said.