School District's Fate Hangs on Prop 30

School District's Fate Hangs on Prop 30

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West County school leaders are anxiously awaiting the vote on the state’s Proposition 30, a tax increase proposal written by Governor Jerry Brown that if passed would mean millions of dollars for the West Contra Costa Unified School District -- money the district says it desperately needs.

“If the election is not successful for Prop 30 we estimate that the cuts will be $12 million for our school district,” said Sherri Gamba, the district’s associate superintendent of business services.

That’s a significant amount on top of the cuts the district has already sustained, Gamba said. Over the past five years, cuts to education at the state level have left WCCUSD with $43 million less in its operating budget. As a result the district has had to scale back the programs and services it offers students, and the number of teachers and administrators it employs.

“No matter what we have to stay afloat,” Gamba said. “Our schools have to stay open for our students. But we’re not able to offer the enrichments and programs that the students really deserve.”

Prop 30 would raise sales tax by a quarter of a percent and income tax by 1-3 percent on people making more than $250,000 a year, with most of the money going to prevent a $6 billion mid-year automatic “trigger” cut to public education.

The proposition would also syphon some of the money to guarantee funding for realignment—a provision passed last year that transferred low-level felons from state prisons to county jails.

Without Prop 30, Contra Costa Chief Probation Officer Philip Kader says he worries the state may not continue to fund realignment.

Under current legislation, Contra Costa County receives 19 million dollars a year from the state for realignment. But, that funding is only guaranteed for the next two years.

“Government is government and promises are promises,” said Kader. “Securing those funds through a constitutional amendment would be a huge advantage to our community.”

If Prop 30 fails, the effect on schools is more immediate. Some districts, like Mt. Diablo Unified, would have to cut days this school year.

“In Mt. Diablo Unified, the teachers union has already negotiated 11 less school days if Prop 30 doesn’t pass,” said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee #2 on Education Finance.

WCCUSD would likely manage with reserve money to get through this year. “Our school board has really taken a very conservative approach to make sure we have money for this year,” Gamba said.

But the following years the district would have to make changes.

Gamba said it is up to the school board to decide where to make further cuts, should it come to that, but she said one likely scenario is cutting school days.

“Twelve million dollars for us is around 15, 16 days of school,” she said. “Nobody wants to see our kids have fewer days of school, least of all people who work in education.”

Cutting 15 days from the school year, combined with a five-day cut the district implemented in 2010 means WCCUSD students next year could be in school a month less than students just a few years ago.

Diane Brown, the president of the United Teachers of Richmond, which represents WCCUSD employees, has been in Richmond schools since 1961—first as a student and then as a teacher -- and said that she’s seen a lot of change over the years and she’s concerned about the future.

“This is a critical election,” she said. The district is already running on a tight budget and she said she doesn’t see how teachers can effectively teach students with less classroom hours and less resources.

“They feel demoralized,” Brown said.

The district would also look to cut programs deemed flexible by the state—high school class size reduction, art, music and adult education have had significant cuts over the last few years.

“You don’t want to have to rob one department, or one group of programs in order to pay for another group of programs,” Gamba said. “But, that’s sort of the decision that you’re forced to make.”

Brown said that middle school and high school class sizes have grown to an average of 41 students in core academic classes—math, English, science and history.

If you put any more kids in these classes, Brown said it would shift the purpose of a teacher from educator to babysitter. “Discipline would become the focus,” she said. “Students would be as frustrated as we are.”

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the combined taxes from Prop 30 would bring in $6 billion annually for the first four years. The money raised would go into the state’s general operating fund. From there, Proposition 98—which uses a complex set of formulas to determine education funding levels—would guarantee that a large portion of that money go to an Education Protection Account. Written into the proposition is a guarantee that 89 percent of the funds in the Education Protection Account go to school boards to be spent at their discretion and 11 percent go to state community colleges.

Several West County community groups have pledged their support for the measure. United Teachers of Richmond is phone banking in support of it with Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, Community Leaders Organizing Undocumented Dreamers, and a group organized to save the adult education program.


Jennifer Baires writes for the hyperlocal site Richmond Confidential. This story was made possible by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation and was produced as part of a New America Media's governance fellowship program.



 

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