Less School Funding Results In Fairer Redistribution

Cut Out More Special Interest School Funding, Don’t Lower 65% Vote for Parcel Taxes

Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) Superintendent Edwin Diaz, sounding coincidentally like fellow PUSD Board of Education member Ed Honowitz, continues to appeal for a school parcel tax in this week’s Pasadena Weekly after the defeat of Measure CC on May 4 (“Upping the Ante: California must lower the bar for parcel taxes to pass for public education to survive in hard times,” read that article by clicking here)

Ed, Honowitz, er….., Diaz, bases his appeal mainly on a purported $25 million loss in unrestricted funds over the past two years. This requires further scrutiny especially in light of a new study on School Finance and Flexibility by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office that refutes PUSD’s claim of decreasing unrestricted funding – read that by clicking here.

We must first respond to the un-sourced statement that PUSD has fallen to 41st among 47 school districts in L.A. County in unrestricted state funds when the state legislature has expanded unrestricted school funding despite a cutback in overall state school funding. Certainly, a loss of a $7.1 million annual parcel tax is not the culprit for such an alleged funding loss, especially while other school districts have presumably also suffered state budget cuts evenly with PUSD and unrestricted funds have been quietly increased to PUSD by the legislature.

Under State Assembly Bill ABX-4-2 (Evans, 2009) as part of the state budget reconciliation for 2010-11, 40 of the former 60 “categorical” or “restricted” school programs funded by the state have been converted into a “flex” fund that can be spent either on the old “restricted” programs and/or diverted to core curriculum classroom expenses.

In other words, state school funds that were formerly dedicated to special interests (library improvement, arts and music, professional development, deferred building maintenance, physical education, American Indian Education Centers, oral health assessments, school safety, adult education, etc.) can now be spent more flexibly based on what each school district decides after a mandatory public hearing is held.

Stated more bluntly, the state budget crisis has forced the legislature’s hand so that buying the votes of school librarians, phys ed teachers, art and music teachers, American Indian educators, school dentists, school building maintenance personnel, has had to come to a stop just like in the game of musical chairs. This is apparently what PUSD’s Measure CC school parcel tax was all about – backfilling possible lost funding for special interests (school librarians, arts and music teachers, etc.).

According to the California Department of Education, 60% of the former restricted State school funds have been shifted by local school districts away from funding special interests to funding direct K-12 classroom instruction (both Measure CC proponents and opponents should cheer!).

For example, PUSD has spent $590 million (or about $1 billion with interest) in Measure Y and TT bonds in the past several years to renovate all its school facilities to almost new condition, even five or more schools that are indisputably surplus to its needs due to declining enrollment. So PUSD does not so much need to fund “deferred maintenance” of its facilities as much as it needs to fund core classroom teacher’s salaries. With the budget reforms under ABX-4-2, PUSD no longer is required to waste state funds on building maintenance and can divert the money into the classroom (again: both sides cheer!).

According to the state Department of Education, about 80% of surveyed school districts have continued funding for arts and music and 90% have continued funding for school library improvement under the new more flexible school budget reforms despite overall school funding cutbacks. This is hardly the catastrophe described by PUSD’s Measure CC parcel tax proponents.

Moreover, under ABX-4-2, the amount of “unrestricted” funds each school district gets is “locked” at the 2008-09 level. This benefits school districts with declining enrollments, like PUSD, at the expense of growing districts (in red county areas). So liberals who typically like equality should be displeased but PUSD advocates should be pleased because PUSD is “making out like a bandit” with a larger share of “unrestricted” school funding contrary to PUSD’s claims.

The state LAO study has recommended that the amount of “unrestricted” funding for public schools be expanded by the following further reforms:

1. Relaxing the cap on the number of students in grades K-3.

2. Shiifting Transportation funding for the Hard to Serve program from “restricted” to “unrestricted” because it is based on a “use-it or lose-it” rule that discourages cost-effectiveness. Last year, the HTS Transportation program was provided for by special funds (Federal stimulus funds?) and could not be converted into discretionary funding. The state LAO “sees no reason to continue” this program as “restricted.”

3. Amending Prop 49 for After School Education and Safety (ASES) programs by a ballot measure so that school districts are not forced to increase class sizes and decrease instructional days (furloughs) “while supplemental after school activities remain untouched.”

4. Consolidate the five “fractured” Career Technical Education (CTE) programs comprising $427 million by “eliminating” most program requirements (again serving special interests?).

5. Removing contracting out restrictions.  Under existing rules (quote): ”contracting for services cannot be done solely for achieving savings…and cannot result in the lay off or demotion of existing district employees.” (more special interests and vote buying).

6. Remove restrictions that force school districts to pay former teachers their pre-layoff salary rate if they serve as a substitute teacher for 20-days in a 60-day period. PUSD’s revolving door of using temp teachers while core teachers are sent out of the classroom undergoing “professional development” is ripe for this abuse.

7. Reduce the “programmatic overlap, confusion, and administrative hassles” between the state Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA, SB 1133, 2006) and Federal School Improvement Program (saving over $700 million over 3 years).

8. Eliminate 40 mandates imposed on K-12 “restricted” funding programs “many of which do almost nothing to benefit students and educators.”

Measure CC’s opponents have mainly focused on PUSD’s “culture of corruption” without understanding the state legislature’s complicity in creating an incentive system for it to flourish. Measure CC proponents have fallaciously focused on cutbacks in “unrestricted” school funding while not divulging that such funding has been liberated for core classroom use and teacher’s salaries. PUSD core classroom teachers may have been hoodwinked into erroneously believing that the continuation of former “restricted” state funding programs with all the special interests involved only would undercut their salaries. Apparently, everyone was mostly wrong about Pasadena’s Measure CC school parcel tax and its ramifications including this writer, despite that I was the only person to have raised the question of the implications of ABX-4-2, which was criticized by both sides.

PUSD’s Mr. Ed (the talking horse, whoever he is) has come this close to lying to the public and the proponents and opponents of Measure CC. The District and the community can no longer afford to be kept in the dark by the Board of Education, the PEF, advocacy lawyers, and the negligent media, about the real situation with public school funding especially with ABX-4-2, as if we were all still living in Plato’s ancient cave. Our community can no longer afford to be divided by apparent intentional efforts to keep everyone in the dark.

Do you remember the exaggerated parable of the fish and the loaves in the Christian religious scriptures where a famous religious person redistributed two fish and five loaves of bread to feed 5,000 people for Jewish Passover? ABX-4-2 has done something like this by relaxing the earmarks for special interests in the state budget for school funding. Those who believe in true just redistribution should cheer.

PUSD needs to drop its incessant demand for school parcel taxes and stop lobbying to lower the majority vote from 65% to 55% for school parcel taxes. Instead it should lobby the legislature for more school budget reforms further reducing the budget featherbedding of special interests to comply with the recommendations of the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The lesson of the defeat of Pasadena School District’s Measure CC school parcel tax and the cutback of state school funding is sometimes less school funding is really more and is fairer.