Lawsuit accuses state of undercutting Prop. 98 funding
A coalition of school board members, superintendents and other education leaders filed a lawsuit against the state last Wednesday seeking to restore more than $2 billion in funding for California’s public schools.
The California School Boards Association (CSBA) and the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) filed the suit saying that the 2011-12 state budget approved by Governor Jerry Brown and lawmakers improperly cut education funding below levels required by voter-approved Proposition 98 funding formulas.
“California schools and schoolchildren were shortchanged in this last budget cycle,” CSBA President Martha Fluor told the Orane County Register. “The cuts to education in the 2011-12 state budget are clearly unconstitutional, and the goal of the lawsuit is to ensure that the minimum funding guarantee for California public schools is calculated correctly.”
The provisions of Prop 98 require that about 40 percent of the state budget go to K-14 education. The law does, however, allow the governor and lawmakers to suspend the requirement during economic crisis.
The 2011-12 state budget provided about $48 billion for education. But the lawsuit claims that the governor and legislature decided to bypass Prop 98’s guarantee by diverting the money owed to California schools toward other budget items, exercising an option in what lawmakers suggest is indeed an economic crisis.
The governor’s office has thus far refrained from commenting on the litigation.
In Orange County, school districts have cut a combined $100 million and eliminated more than 500 jobs because of state budget cuts. Locally, Mammoth Unified School District Superintendent Rich Boccia thinks the lawsuit is indicative of what has caused some of the challenging cost-cutting measures schools have been forced to take because of harsh, and in this case possibly unnecessary, cuts to education funding.
The lawsuit says the $2 billion owed to schools would provide nearly $10,000 per classroom to help restore smaller class sizes, libraries, sports, summer school, arts education, after-school tutoring and other essential programs to local schools.
If the suit filed in San Francisco Superior Court is successful, any remedy would likely impact future budgets rather than the current 2011-12 plan, according to CSBA general counsel Abe Hajela. He went on to add that the plaintiffs are not seeking an injunction, so much as a recalculation of the Prop 98 formula that determines how much K-12 schools and community colleges receive each year.
Hajela told the San Jose Mercury-News that the $2.1 billion could be repaid in future years as “settle-up” money, similar to other supplemental funds that the state provides schools now as the result of prior lawsuits.
The court is not expected to settle the matter until at least next summer, and by that point lawmakers will probably have altered the 2011-12 education budget in either a mid-year budget session or as part of next year’s budget talks.
According to the Mercury-News, Bob Wells, ACSA executive director, said he and other education leaders met with Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance prior to filing the suit. Wells described Finance officials as “fatalistic” about the filing, suggesting that they probably expected the governor’s budget would come under legal review for its education provisions.
A finance spokesman for Governor Brown and the legislature opined that the courts would “find the actions the Legislature took are legal and appropriate.”
The administration seemed more concerned that the suit would worry counties, because the lawsuit focuses on $5 billion in sales taxes California is sending to local governments to pay for new responsibilities such as housing prisoners in jails. That plan began Oct. 1, and many counties are already sensitive about any threat to their funding. Palmer made sure to note that “this suit will in no way jeopardize the funding the Legislature has approved to finance the realignment.”
Wells told the Mercury-News it was the first time he could recall a lawsuit challenging the state’s Proposition 98 calculation in which his group did not have the California Teachers Association (CTA) standing by its side.
In fact, quite the opposite is the case: Brown and Democratic leaders brokered the budget with the CTA’s blessing in June after adding teacher layoff protections and restrictions on how districts could impose mid-year cuts.