Grim outlook for Peninsula schools due to budget cuts 

For public schools in San Mateo County — an economically diverse region where the richest and poorest cities often share a border — the recession has created two main characters: The have-nots and the have-less.

No matter where your child is being educated on the Peninsula — whether at the most- or least-funded school — you’re getting less than you would expect.

Of the county’s 23 school districts, about a dozen — many of those in wealthier areas — rely most heavily upon local property taxes to pay for teachers and classroom supplies, a source that has plummeted in most cases due to the housing crisis and related factors.

The remaining districts rely most heavily upon funding from the state, which wrangled with annual multibillion-dollar deficits long before the recession and slashed $18 billion from its education budget during the last two fiscal years — a cut not seen since the Great Depression.

Another $2.4 billion in cuts is being considered next fiscal year.

To add a larger rip to the hole in school pockets, San Mateo County lost $155 million in investments after Lehman Bros. went bankrupt in 2008 — $40 million of which belonged to education.

And while Peninsula districts have been able to pass a dozen parcel tax measures and two bond measures during the last two years to help schools stay afloat, the outlook for the 2010-11 school year remains grim.

On March 15, initial pink slips were mailed to more than 500 teachers and other certified staff countywide, a number that does not include temporary teachers, bus drivers, custodians, administration assistants and clerical staff, the San Mateo County Office of Education reported.

Districts are looking at increasing class sizes, eliminating summer schools, reducing student days, creating furloughs for staff and slicing into other programs.

For many districts that rely on state sources and do not benefit from property taxes that derive from some of the county’s lavish mansions, classrooms and programs are being “cut to the bone,” said Peter Burchyns, special adviser to the San Mateo County Office of Education board and president.

For wealthier districts that have been able to fund student learning well above the state average, the recession has meant scaling back the highly regarded programs that have come to exemplify a top-of-the-line public education, Burchyns said.

“It’s fair to say all the districts are feeling the squeeze,” he said. “Whenever you are reduced beyond what you’ve been used to, you feel it.”

The disparity at San Mateo County schools has been vast. Five years ago, districts reaping the benefits of high property taxes could spend upwards of $8,000 more per student than other districts, Burchyns said.

That is because school districts in the county fall under two funding schemes — one called “revenue limit” and the other “basic aid.”

Revenue-limit districts were created to ensure that all California students — not just those in wealthy areas — get an equal amount of funding. Those districts receive a guaranteed amount of dollars per pupil from the state.

Districts considered “basic aid” get enough property-tax revenue to meet or exceed the state’s per-pupil spending requirement so they can keep that property tax revenue but only receive a small portion of state aid.

Students from districts in wealthier areas with expensive properties tend to receive well more than the state’s per-pupil requirement. Conversely, revenue-limit districts relying on state contributions play victim to a government that is broke and constantly slashing funding for education.

Of course, not all basic-aid districts are receiving heaps of property-tax revenue. Some districts receive only slightly enough to exceed the state’s per-pupil spending requirement. Those districts have been hit the hardest during the housing downturn as they receive minimal state aid and have also dealt with diminished property-tax revenue.

The South San Francisco Unified School District is a prime example of this. It is not a district that features multimillion-dollar estates with massive property values, and yet it falls under the basic-aid financing category.

“We sort of fell into it because state funding is so low,” Superintendent Howard Cohen said. “[But recently] our property-tax income fell 5 percent more than expected.”

To offset that loss of revenue, the district has had to lay off 50 teachers, Cohen said. The district is also considering layoffs for other staff and furlough days, among other cutbacks, he said.

With giant deficits, laying off teachers and other staff provide the main source for relief, as salaries make up 80 percent of school expenditures, Burchyns said.

Layoffs, furlough days, increased classroom sizes and other labor-related savings targets often lead to contentious negotiations with unions.

What’s worse, state laws have it that first-year teachers paid less in salary are more easily laid off than long-term teachers paid higher salaries, which means you have to lay off more teachers to reach savings targets, he said.

What it all boils down to for schools — whether in San Mateo County or elsewhere in the state — is that California lawmakers badly need to fix the state’s financial situation so that per-pupil limits are raised to levels that are competitive with the nation, educators said.

California is 47th in per-pupil spending, Education Week said.

“The school districts are doing everything they can just to keep the lights on,” California Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung said. “We just need to pass an education budget that’s fair and equitable for kids.”

maldax@sfexaminer.com

*All numbers are approximate and vary per district

Source: EdSource

 

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