Brown Promises Bare-Bones California Budget

Brown Promises Bare-Bones California Budget

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Governor-elect Jerry Brown hasn’t been sworn in yet, but he’s already turning heads by warning Californians that his proposed budget next month will bring them nightmares. "Please sit down if you're reading the stories on the budget on Jan. 10. If you're driving, fasten your seat belt, because it's going to be a rough ride."

That much has been evident from the hard truths Brown continued to unleash last week at a UCLA forum focusing on where education fits in the state's overall revenue picture.

It was his second budget forum in seven days, and Brown made it clear that few people will emerge unscathed as the Legislature seeks to find a way out of a potential $28.1 billion hole.

After being cheered at the outset of the forum, Brown said, "I don't know if you'll be cheering after the budget comes out.”

“Jerry Brown is entering office at a critical moment for schools,” said Gary Thomas, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools.

“Public schools in California already have suffered some $17 billion in cuts during the past two years. Buoyed by federal stimulus funds last year, San Bernardino County districts were able to withstand most of the state cuts, but those one-time funds from the federal government are now largely gone.”

Brown who has called finding more funding for schools a “very top priority” acknowledges the difficulty of doing so in tough economic times.

"This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime," Brown told hundreds of educators, union representatives and parents who had gathered at UCLA. "I can't promise you there won't be more cuts, because there will be."

"We'll present a budget on Jan. 10. It will be a very tough budget, but it will be transparent," he said.

"We'll lay it out as best I can. We've been living in fantasy land. It is much worse than I thought. I'm shocked."

In the past, state leaders relied on one-time gimmicks, some of which made the state's deficit worse, and one-time cash infusions to patch over flawed spending plans. Those days are over, Brown said.

"The day of reckoning is upon us and I'm determined to bite the bullet, get it done in whatever way the consensus of California can be built," he said. "Fair, transparent and enduring — that's my goal."

Brown and other state officials painted a bleak picture, saying the deep fiscal problems mean there will be more reductions affecting California's classrooms.

Educators responded by calling for an end to cuts, asking for greater discretion at the local level as to how dwindling dollars are spent, urging the state to seek more federal funding and requesting legislation that would allow them to increase local property taxes with 55% of the vote rather than the current requirement of two-thirds.

"We can't take any more cuts. You really need to look elsewhere," said Bernie Rhinerson, the chief district relations officer at the San Diego Unified School District. "We are at the cliff."

Brown called the current era, with widening gaps between the wealthy and middle class, "a very difficult period. We've never had it before. It may be worse than the Depression in terms of political pressures, the tearing of the social fabric."

Those who are the most privileged, he said, "really have to take the lead" in resolving the fiscal crisis. He said that group includes government agencies, which can do "a lot more with less."

“A strong, strong majority, about 60 percent want to spend more on education, but a strong, strong majority of those same 60 percent don't want to pay more taxes,” Brown said. “All those things don't fit together.”

Across the state, voters approved about 60 percent of local bond measures tied to education in November's election, showing a willingness to back increases to education spending.

The state’s financial health is intricately tied to schools because roughly 40% of the state budget is earmarked for K-12 education. In recent years, as legislators struggled to close gaping budget deficits, schools have seen round after round of funding cuts – 21 billion in the last two years alone.

More than 30,000 pink slips have been handed out to California's K-12 teachers during the past three years, with 21,000 eventually being laid off. Per pupil spending in California was already below the national average pre-recession, but it has continued to sag since 2007. California's public school students, perhaps as a result, are in the bottom tenth when it comes to standardized test scores.

“The point is that no matter where one goes around our county - or around the state, the stories are going to be the same: schools and districts face severe budget situations,” said Thomas.

“For the 420,000 students in the county, they face the prospects of having more crowded classrooms, reduced programs like in the arts and athletics, and fewer services like tutoring and counseling,” he said.

Brown noted that funding for some state services cannot be cut by legislative or judicial mandate.

"When you sit at the table to carve it up, it's not an equal table because some people have greater protections," he said. Spending on prison health care, for instance, will increase by billions of dollars because of a recent judicial order, Brown said.

Meanwhile, most Inland educators welcomed Brown’s tough, no-nonsense approach to the state’s fiscal crisis.

“He’s no hatchet man,” she said. “He listens, he’s frank, but he’s no pushover either," said Rialto education specialist Joni Saunders.

An educator in the audience from Riverside concluded, “He just might be the seasoned sage who can put California’s schools back on the rails.”