Unless the state of California sees a boost in revenues of at least $3.7 billion over the next few weeks, schools throughout the state will lose more than half their pupil transportation funding.

Unless the state of California sees a boost in revenues of at least $3.7 billion over the next few weeks, schools throughout the state will lose more than half their pupil transportation funding.

School boards in the Mt. Shasta area have known for months about the looming reduction, called Trigger 1, that was built into this year’s state budget. While they have been preparing for the possible halving of their transportation funds, some are ready to be hit hard in their General Funds, while others will feel less of a impact because of unexpected increases in enrollments.

All say they are determined to keep their buses running, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

Siskiyou Union High School District Superintendent Mike Matheson warned that even for those who can squeak through after Trigger 1, more cuts could be on the way. “Not only this year, but continued cuts next year,” he said, referring to Trigger 2.

“It's completely outrageous!” exclaimed Matheson. “Education has taken the bulk of cuts during the economic crisis.” He referred to a Sept. 12 press release from the California Dept. of Education, in which State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson claimed the last three years of budget cuts cost schools $18 billion.

“No other entity has taken that volume of cuts across the state,” said Matheson. “Our students and our communities are going to suffer.”

State revenue shortfall triggers cuts
An updated assessment of California's economy projects that General Fund revenues and transfers in 2011-2012 will be $3.7 billion short of Assembly expectations. That will trigger a cut that was written into the budget passed last June, according a Legislative Analyst Office report released last Wednesday.

The report states that only $300 million of the anticipated $4 billion in revenues needed to stop the trigger had been realized as of Nov. 16. The LAO and the Dept. of Finance will assess the shortfall by Dec. 15. If the deficit persists, the cut will automatically take effect January 1, 2012.

The 51.693% reduction to student transportation statewide called for by Trigger 1 totals $248 million.

A California School Boards Association list estimates the following cuts to Mt. Shasta area schools:?Butteville Union Elementary, $13,004; Castle Rock Union Elementary, $9,924; Dunsmuir Elementary, $11,834; Dunsmuir Joint Union High, $13,239; McCloud Union Elementary, $1,716; Mount Shasta Union Elementary, $17,924; Siskiyou Union High, $58,329 and Weed Union Elementary, $24,450.

How local schools will handle the cuts
Matheson said the cuts will hit SUHSD’s General Fund “because at this point we can't cut transportation. We would start to lose students.”  

Two south Siskiyou elementary schools have recently determined that they have enough students enrolled to offset the loss of funds.

“Actually the idea was just presented before board,” said Butteville Elementary Office Manager Brandie Brown. “The increase in enrolled students is 15. We're comfortable. We ended up with an increase to our General Fund of $17,000.”

Dunsmuir Elementary was also surprised by a rise in student numbers. “We projected for 120, but we now have 140 enrolled,” said school superintendent Cindy Rinne. “So we're not totally broke. It looks like we'll be able to weather these cuts.”

Dunsmuir High School Office Manager Kim Vardanega stated that they expected a modest hit, about $13,000, on healthy reserves of over $1 million.

Mark Telles, superintendent of Castle Rock Elementary School, said that his school's budget is lean, but holding steady. “The bottom line is that there is not much you can do to cut in the middle of the year,” he explained. “The bulk of your district cost is certificated positions, which can't be cut mid-year.”

Telles said that labor law required a March 15 notice, which would not take effect until the following year. So the soonest he could notify a teacher of termination would be March 15, 2012, and the termination would not take effect until 2013.

“Then it's all operating costs,” he said. “And our operating costs have been cut to the bone.”

He added that the school has kept running by dipping into a special reserve called Economic Uncertainty. “It's for fiscal emergencies, like the economic crisis,” he said. “It's a finite fund that we've been diminishing annually.”

Kathi Emerson, superintendent of both Mount Shasta Union School District and Weed Elementary School District said the schools won’t be reducing their transportation services, and they’ll be covering the extra expense through their General Funds.

“We can do it, it’s not going to bankrupt us, but we hate to reach into our reserves,” Emerson said.
Rural schools hit harder

Some school administrators complained about the inequity of the cuts. Said Matheson, “The transportation cut is such a lopsided cut compared to larger school districts. They're not as dependent on transportation. It hits us hard!”

Rinne agreed, stating that various school agencies were describing the cuts by Trigger 1 as disproportionate. “It hurts rural far more than urban schools,” she said. “In the city, kids can take public transportation. We don't have public transportation.”

Emerson said schools are further threatened because if they do reduce transportation expenditures, they may be “rebenched” and not qualify for the same amount of transportation funding next year.

More than school transportation is at stake when Trigger 1 gets pulled. Its cuts include $100 million each to the University of California, California State University, developmental services and in-home support for seniors and the disabled. Community college fees would increase $10 per unit, and reductions would be made for child care assistance, library grants and prisons, among other programs, according to the Associated Press.

Trigger 2 cuts
Also written into the June budget was a second round of automatic cuts, Trigger 2, which would also be pulled if the state revenues fell short by more than $2 billion when assessed by the Legislative Analyst Office and Dept. of Finance on Dec. 15. Unless revenues improve by at least 1.7 billion before then, Trigger 2 will be pulled, dropping the funding for K-12 local education agencies by 4%.

A Nov. 16 School Services of California report states that such a drop in revenue limits would result in additional cuts to school funding of over $1 billion, beginning Feb. 1, 2012.

Emerson said in Weed, staff have already negotiated a reduction calendar incrementally based on the amount of the triggers enacted. The larger the cuts, the more days the school year will be reduced, up to five days, Emerson said.

“If these Trigger 2 reductions do happen, Weed won’t be as hard hit, because they have a contingency plan there,” Emerson said.

In the current year, Trigger 2 reductions could be absorbed by the Mount Shasta Union School District’s reserves, however, staff members have already agreed on a three-day reduction in the school year, Emerson said. Anything beyond that would have to be negotiated with the bargaining units.

“People in education haven’t had an increase in years... paychecks are already smaller,” Emerson said. “The state’s idea that we can recover these losses from our employees is really unappealing.”

In the worst case scenario, Emerson said, programs which have so far been protected at MSUSD, including art and athletics, and staff members including a dedicated PE teacher and counselor could be in jeopardy.

Though she’s keeping a close eye on the numbers and creating a budget to deal with the “worst case scenario,” Emerson said both the Mount Shasta and Weed elementary school districts are taking a “wait and see” approach.

“We'll be depleted if we keep receiving cuts,” said Telles. We can't do this year after year after year.”