Local elementary school districts have been bracing and adjusting for dramatic funding cuts for the next school year as the state wrestles with a $12 billion projected budgetary shortfall.
But the latest indications from Sacramento are that the seemingly prudent budget planning by district leaders may not have gone far enough to address the scale of cuts to be made once the dust has settled in the Capitol.
"Bleak doesn't begin to describe it," state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) said on April 14 during a short break from the Senate Budget Committee hearings on school funding for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Superintendent Ken Ranella of the Menlo Park City School District sent a letter on April 7 to the school community detailing what bleak looks like: If extensions on soon-to-expire taxes aren't approved, he wrote, projections show that the district can expect a payment from the state of only $588,000 for the fiscal year. That compares with $2.9 million in funding three years ago, and represents an 80 percent funding cut over that period.
Eric Hartwig, superintendent of the Las Lomitas School District, said his district faces similar pain, and worries that without the tax extensions the Legislature might pass new bills allowing lottery money to be withheld from the state's schools, and reducing the guaranteed $120 per student all districts receive from the state.
The four elementary school districts in the Menlo Park area -- Menlo Park City, Las Lomitas, Portola Valley and Woodside, all basic-aid districts -- will be affected by the so-called "fair share" funding cut signed by the governor several weeks ago. That measure will cost basic-aid districts in the state 8.9 percent of what is normally paid to them in categorical funds.
Superintendent Tim Hanretty of the Portola Valley School District said the "fair share" cut will cost his district about $350,000. In an April 13 report, Hanretty said the district may be facing another $225,000 if the tax extensions aren't approved.
But Hartwig said that the state Legislative Analysts Office on April 14 indicated that school districts should prepare for a hit of about twice what was originally predicted should the taxes not be extended. In Las Lomitas' case, that means a loss of $900,000 to $1 million rather than the $485,000 the district originally was told to expect.
Although the cutbacks will hurt, Hanretty said that the Portola Valley district's challenges "aren't as great as some of our neighboring districts." That's because in the last few years, "we saw the future," and took significant measures to keep the district on solid financial ground.
"During the dotcom days, we established a good reserve," he said, adding that the reserve now represents about 16 percent of the budget. If the tax extensions aren't approved, the district will spend from its reserves in the next fiscal year, he said.
"We put that money away when times were good as a rainy-day fund. And it's raining."
Hartwig said the Las Lomitas district has spent from its reserves this school year to compensate for previous state "takeaways." The district has also taken advantage of the state's rule change on reserves that lowered the requirement to squirrel away 3 percent of a district's budget to 1 percent, according to Carolyn Chow, the district's business manager.
The district plans to continue programs at much the same level next fiscal year, thanks to stepped-up donations by parents to the Las Lomitas Education Foundation, Hartwig said. He expressed much gratitude for the foundation support that will allow the district to keep its programs, and an equal measure of irritation that such support has become critical.
"It's unconscionable: Our state wants a first-tier education system on a third-world budget," he said.
In his letter to the community, Ranella said that some of the initiatives planned for the next school year to accommodate the district's increasing enrollment -- such as more counselors, curriculum coordinators in math and English/language arts, and increased staffing for elementary art and music programs -- are now in jeopardy with the prospect of much deeper cuts in state funding.
"If we were to follow through with and pursue all these initiatives, next year's ... budget would be much higher than what would be financially prudent," he wrote. As a result, he said, he will be working with other staff members and the district's Financial Advisory Committee, among others, to reduce spending by another $600,000 in the preliminary budget, he said.