School district officials across the state are wrestling with the fallout over a controversial new law that bars teacher layoffs for a year even amid deep financial uncertainty.
The law, passed at the last minute with no public debate as part of the budget package in late June, requires districts to maintain this year’s level of teachers and programs in the upcoming 2011-12 school year. This means that even if funding drops, school boards and superintendents will be prevented from making mid-year cuts to campus programs.
The law also restricts fiscal oversight of district budgets by county offices of education, which have had that authority for two decades.
Education officials have denounced the law as a stunning blow to local budget control and said it could drive more districts into financial insolvency. More than 140 districts are in financial jeopardy, according to the state Education Department, after three years of reductions totaling $18 billion to the K-12 budget — nearly $3,000 per student.
"It’s extraordinarily bad policy," said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a school finance consulting firm in Sacramento. "Taking away local control and fiscal oversight is a huge departure from best practices that puts districts in harm’s way."
But Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn., said the law would give a well-deserved respite to teachers, who have suffered 30,000 layoffs in the last few years. The union backed the bill but did not initiate it, he said.
"Teachers have taken too many hits in the last few years," he said.
On Friday, fiscal experts with county education offices met in Sacramento to analyze the law and hammer out a "common message" for districts on how to deal with it, according to Dave Gordon, Sacramento County schools superintendent.
Districts have expressed confusion, for instance, over whether the law will require them to rehire teachers or restore programs cut earlier this year. The Los Angeles Unified School District laid off about 5,400 teachers and counselors to close a $408-million deficit in its $7-billion budget and has rehired only 3,500 of them.
"If you have to bring back every person you lay off, it will be very problematic," said Edgar Zazueta, the district’s government relations director in Sacramento. "No one has clarified this."
Districts were also unclear over the meaning of Gov. Jerry Brown’s assurances in signing the law that it would "not interfere with local school board decisions."
"In fashioning their local budgets, school boards may nevertheless need to make reductions due to cost increases, loss of federal funds, enrollment declines or other factors," Brown said in his statement.
The budget bill passed last month requires a $1.8-billion cut in school funding — about $260 per student — if revenues fall $2 billion below projections. To absorb that cut, the law allows school districts — with union approval — to shorten the school year by seven days, on top of the five days already authorized.
But further shortening the school year, as opposed to reducing staff, will particularly hurt lower-income students and widen the achievement gap with their more affluent counterparts, said Arun Ramanathan of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based education advocacy group. He accused the teachers union of placing its own interests over those of children.
"This is extraordinarily inequitable for communities of color and low-income children," he said. "The state has alerted school districts that they are job agencies, not educational agencies."
He and others expressed concern that the restrictions on the counties’ fiscal oversight would lead school districts into financial disaster. For the next year, districts will have to demonstrate to county education offices balanced budgets for only one year, not the three years of financial plans that had been required to ensure districts were solvent.
Mark Hedlund, spokesman for state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), said the provision was meant to give districts more flexibility in their budgets. He said requiring three years of balanced budgets based on imprecise revenue forecasts could lead to "hasty decisions in cutting teachers further, more loss of programs and counselors and ... larger class sizes."
"This was put together as a way to preserve the seed corn of our economy, which is K-12 education," he said.