School district may see smaller cuts

For the upcoming school year, the Berkeley Unified School District may be looking at its smallest budget cut in years, since Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision of the state budget released Monday provides more money for K-12 education than local districts had earlier anticipated.

Over the past few weeks, the district has been considering multiple budget scenarios for the 2011-12 school year, the most drastic of which would have cut about $7 million from the district’s total budget of $100 million. In March, the district released a set of proposed reductions totaling nearly $4 million, which included a handful of furlough days and teacher layoffs, an increase in class sizes and more than $1 million worth of cuts to the Berkeley Adult School.

But the revision of the state budget that Brown presented this week, which takes into account an unexpected tax revenue surge of $6.6 billion for the state, provides an additional $3 billion for K-12 education over the proposed January state budget. According to district spokesperson Mark Coplan, the most likely fate for the district would be a total cut of $700,000. This would include slashing $225,000 from the adult school’s budget and also using the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program — a fund generated by a special local tax passed by city voters in 1986 that helps keep district class sizes down — to cover a $475,000 expense previously paid from the district’s general fund.

This proposed cut of less than $1 million comes as a welcome change for the district. Over the past three years, the district has approved cuts totalling $12 million, and over the past seven, about $21 million have been cut, according to Coplan.

However, the economic future that Brown outlined this week is contingent upon extending a sales tax and vehicle license fee, which are set to expire in June, for five years — a decision that would require a two-thirds majority vote from the state Legislature. But this poses a challenge for Brown, because Republicans in the Legislature have historically opposed increasing taxes to fill the state’s budget hole.
“I’m not going to give the Republicans a road map to ruin,” Brown said at a press conference Monday following his presentation on the revision. “I’m going to give them a road map to success.”

While Brown did not say what his plan would be if the tax extensions do not go through, with the state’s $9.6 billion deficit that he is looking to mend with $10.8 billion in cuts to generate some reserve funds as well as what he called the “wall of debt” — a multibillion dollar debt caused by years of deferring payments to the future — it would presumably mean much deeper cuts that would plunge public education into further financial troubles.

With this uncertainty, local school districts remain skeptical of the bright future for education that Brown painted in the Monday press conference.

In the Oakland Unified School District, a cut of about $12 million seems most likely, according to district spokesperson Troy Flint. Although the information presented in the May revision comes as somewhat of a relief — the district had considered cutting $30 million this year, which would have followed the $122 million cut last year, according to Flint — he said the situation remains unclear because the tax extensions have not yet been approved.

“There’s no guarantee,” he said. “The scenario has not changed that much. We’re pleased with what the report suggests, but whether that’s actually viable in the current political environment still creates a lot of uncertainty in the budget.”

The state has until June 15 to approve a budget for the fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education will look over a proposed set of cuts based on the May revision at its meeting on May 25, according to Coplan. The board has until June 30 to approve a final budget based on the state’s final budget.