Ask Mono County Superintendent of Schools Stacey Adler what she thinks of state leaders and lawmakers, and their predilection to cut education spending first when trying to balance the budget, and you’re likely to get a long sigh.
Adler has just about entirely lost confidence in the state legislature to even attempt to solve its budget crisis without gutting education, and attempting to push through tax increases just to keep the status quo.
“I read the May [budget] revision. I heard from [Governor Jerry Brown]. All the state can come up with is a tax increase?” she asked rhetorically. “Really? That’s just not a way to solve the problem. I can’t for the life of me fathom why more ideas aren’t being considered.”
Adler’s advising both the Mammoth Unified and Eastern Sierra Unified school districts to plan for a $441 per student ADA (average daily attendance) cut, the current expense (cost) of education as defined in the state’s education code.
The $441 represents about 9% of the state’s typical per-student expenditure in Mono County.
“I cross-checked that with other Basic Aid districts and we all seemed to agree that’s the safe course of action, especially if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative package doesn’t pass in November and billions of cuts to educations would be put into effect in January 2013.
“lt’s the same situation [as last year], the legislature is just not calling it a ‘trigger,’” she said. But don’t think that throwing up her hands in frustration means she’s throwing in the towel. Adler’s dismayed, but she’s keeping a stiff upper lip and soldiering on, protecting her districts.
“We’ve found ways to keep up revenue,” Adler explained, citing as an example taking Charter Schools located out of the area and administering them under MCOE’s umbrella. One of these schools is based in Shasta County and two others in Orange and San Diego counties.
“That will help keep us at the waterline, or a little above it, and enable us to sponsor KidAPolooza, Mono Council for the Arts and Library programs, etc. What dismays her is that schools are having to be creative, but not the legislature. “We have to think out of the box. How come the state isn’t thinking out of the box?”
She’s also bothered by the two-edged sword on which voters are being asked to throw themselves. On the one hand, if they don’t approve the Governor’s tax package, schools will almost certainly be hit for billions in cuts. And if the electorate approves the package, education will be spared temporarily, but Adler pointed out that Mono County would be taxed an additional quarter percent in addition to what it pays already, and that its residents already pay one of the highest food costs in the state.
She’s also worried about the effects those taxes might have on employment and related tax revenue.
“We need to bring jobs back to California,” she stated, as opposed to losing companies to states with better tax environs. (Apple Inc. has reportedly recently explored the idea of relocating out of state.)
Back in her county, however, she’s even more concerned about how those cuts might hamstring already thin yearly school schedules. “That $441 equates to about three weeks of classes,” Adler explained. “Students have to have a minimum of 175 days, according to the state. MUSD is currently at 180 days, and ESUSD is already at 175. How do we reconcile a 160-day school year with the state, if the cuts are forcing us to go there?” That amount of school days would, she illustrated, be the lowest in the state since the early 1900s.
Those three weeks, she elaborated, constitute a huge amount of lost time, which could make all the difference when preparing for basic standards testing. “If you lose those, you almost have to start over with a whole new set of benchmarks.”
Students wouldn’t be the only ones at a disadvantage. Adler went on to say that bargaining would have to be done all over again. Some contracts, however, are almost as low as they can go already. SERS (School Employees Retirement System) has a 175-day contract minimum.
“We’ve gotten so good at adapting that the legislature just assumes, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine; they’ll figure out something.’ We do, and God bless our teachers, who are continually willing to do more with less. But ‘less’ is getting to be very, very small.”
She’s thankful that for the moment Gov. Brown has shelved pursuit of the “weighted student formula,” which takes money from rural and Basic Aid districts in particular, and redistributes it. “If that were to happen, my little districts would get crushed,” she forecast.
“You have to look at the whole picture, the mechanics of school operations, first,” Adler suggested. “How does redistribution make things more fluid? The state picks the winners and losers, and 60 percent get hurt to help the other 40 percent. I don’t see where that’s helpful.”
Meanwhile, she’s hoping that school lobbying forces will step up their efforts on behalf of education. “I’m not being asked to testify in Sacramento, so a lot of us superintendents are busy just hanging on and trying to make a concerted push when and where we can,” Adler assessed.
Bottom line: “People in Sacramento are not putting kids first. We need to protect the kids.”