Education budget bill does not dictate staffing levels, say officials

Even before a firestorm of protest ignited around the state budget's new spending requirements on schools, Gov. Jerry Brown sought to clarify a key aspect with a signing message that said school districts would not be required to restore all layoffs or other staffing or program cuts already implemented.

Still, that question continues to swirl.

So, once again, state officials are taking time to explain and restate that the 2011-12 budget provides school boards with the flexibility to write budgets that protect schools from a range of potential revenue losses in 2011-12 - including the drop in federal funds from the stimulus and jobs bills.

However, under education budget bill AB 114, districts cannot reduce staff and programs at the beginning of the year on the grounds that they are preparing for a potential midyear cut.

According to Rick Simpson, education advisor to Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles and a lead architect of education budget bill AB 114, the bill was intended to limit a school district's ability to reduce staff and programs based on the assumption that revenues will fall dramatically short of projections this year.

The potential for midyear cuts to schools is very unlikely," said Simpson in an email.

Last month, many in the education community were up in arms over a provision in AB 114 that requires school districts to "project the same level of revenue per unit of average daily attendance as it received in the 2010-11 fiscal year" and make staffing decisions based on that level.

The source of their frustration was that the legislation also created triggers' that would automatically cut schools by up to $1.5 billion and eliminate funding for home-to-school transportation if incoming state revenues dropped far below estimates.

In other words, districts must plan for revenues that may or may not materialize. That call will be made by the governor's Department of Finance by December 15.

While the potential for midyear cuts remains a challenge, officials from the Brown administration and Legislature have acknowledged the numerous other fiscal pressures facing schools - and suggested educators plan accordingly.

"School boards may nevertheless need to make reductions due to cost increases, loss of federal funds, enrollment declines or other factors. AB 114 does not interfere with these local school board decisions," Brown wrote in a budget signing message.

For example, school boards need to factor the $2.7 billion in upcoming payment deferrals into their budgets. Districts must also plan for new responsibilities to provide mental health services to special education students - yet another provision of the state budget package.

Thus, districts are under no requirement to restore all the cuts they initially planned for, which in many cases was approximately $330 per student.

State officials expect school boards will show their bargaining units the areas of lost revenue assumed to impact the district, and make staffing decisions based on that.

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