Clad in suits and ties, like the guests at a funeral, Alameda County’s seventeen public school superintendents gathered in Oakland last month to lambaste the governor’s proposed reductions in education funding. Grimly, they talked about how the cuts would translate into reality. “California’s schools simply do not have $4.8 billion to cut,” began a statement penned by county School Superintendent Sheila Jordan and signed by each superintendent. “Textbooks, child development, supplemental instruction, nutrition and transportation programs, among others, are all jeopardized by this plan.”
In contrast to that quiet meeting, public school students from the city of Alameda last week raised a ruckus that culminated in a rally to protest plans to nix sports from the district’s curriculum. Waving signs asking “Where is the love?” or berating Governor Schwarzenegger for his proposal, students shouted, “Save our schools, budget cuts are cruel!”
Nothing is yet set in stone, but for embattled school districts all across California, the reality of the proposed corner-cutting is just settling in. Drastic state spending cuts could leave Alameda County schools in some of their worst straits in more than a decade. The plight of schools on the island city illustrates the ground-zero aftermath of the state’s fiscal crisis. Even with a $120 parcel tax to generate cash for schools slated for the June ballot, students in the Alameda Unified School District may have to survive the coming school year without sports and advanced placement classes. Teachers — at least the ones who dodge layoffs — will teach classes containing nearly twice as many students.
Prospects could hardly look bleaker — and not just for Alameda. Area school board members agree that reaction to the proposed budget, whether in the form of resolutions from educators or students screaming for change on the sidewalks, hasn’t been this strong in decades.
To offset what he described as a “fiscal emergency,” Schwarzenegger proposed an across-the-board reduction in state spending, culminating in $4.8 billion of school budget cuts. The state typically provides more than half the funding for California school districts. But with a looming recession, the governor even asked legislators to suspend Proposition 98, which guarantees schools increased funding each year. Even before the cuts, according to a recent report by the Alameda school district, California ranks 46 out of 50 states for quality of education and spends $1,900 less per student than the national average. School board president Bill Schaff said that’s a dismal discrepancy for “anyone with their head on straight.”
Since the cuts translate to an $800 decrease in per-student spending for each California school district, the total reduction gets bigger with the size of the district. With 9,000 students to serve, Berkeley Unified School District faces a $3.7 million shortfall beginning this fall. Oakland Unified School District, with 46,000 students and 6,000 employees, is looking at cutting $22 million from its spending in the 2008-2009 academic year. Even before news hit that the district needed to slash its operating costs, Oakland already had until mid-March to scale back another $1.1 million, according to a report by staff.
Meanwhile, in the 10,000-student Alameda district, officials are breaking a sweat. Schaff thinks Alameda has attracted the most attention to date because cuts tend to prove more drastic in districts with lots of small schools rather than a handful of big ones. “When you’ve got fewer larger schools, you use less staff,” he said. “And when most of the budget goes toward personnel, the impact is greater here because we can’t consolidate the way other districts can.”
With a good 90 percent of the district’s budget going directly to salaries and benefits, Schaff said the most effective way to cut costs is to lay people off. And since seniority trumps skill in public employment, younger teachers are likely to be dismissed without regard to their qualifications. Meanwhile, the remaining employees will have to do more multitasking. “They talk about laying off excess administrators, but there are no more excess administrators at this point,” Schaff said. “We’re all multitasking; even the superintendent’s multitasking.”
Like school boards throughout the Bay Area, Alameda Unified’s board has talked about firing teachers, implementing a new parcel tax, and even closing entire schools to deal with the possible $4.5 million reduction in its $80 million budget. As with scores of other Northern California districts, officials also are considering a 35 percent increase in the number of students per classroom.
Alameda schools already suffered roughly $1 million cuts annually for the past seven years, so the new shortfall threatens more than 70 district jobs and slashes in service, maintenance, and other necessities. The most drastic prior cutback for the district totaled a bit more than $2 million. A report issued by the school district after the governor announced the cuts last month said this year’s setback could “completely change the face of education in Alameda.”