Leaner Times Ahead for Many School Districts

Leaner times for California schools until the economy turns around--that's the forecast driving belt-tightening measures during the current school year, according to Larry Bozanich, financial services officer for the Long Beach Unified School District. "Current year cuts were just approved by the state," Bozanich said this week. "We temporarily dodged a bullet when the governor's proposed cuts of $5.6 million for our district were limited by the legislature to a $2.1 million reduction for our energy block grant," he said. This grant was to have compensated school districts for some of the huge increases in the cost of utilities that resulted from last year's energy crisis. In force this spring are a district freeze on equipment purchases and unfilled positions. "We're trying to protect schools and classrooms," said Bozanich. "Critical vacancies at school sites are still being filled. We're continuing to review each request. Categorical programs may continue to fill vacancies for which there are adequate funds." Central offices and support services equipment requests are being reviewed. School construction and modernization so far has been able to proceed on schedule with local school bond funds, but the state matching funds are uncertain. A November state school bond measure, if approved, should provide the 50-50 state match for new school construction, but the generous 80-20 state match for school modernization may be in jeopardy. Even if the state bonds win later support, the state is expected to reduce the proportion it pays to renovate older schools. This means local school bond dollars may not go as far as originally planned. Each May, the state revises its budget based upon new facts. Prior years' surpluses and improved school funding are things of the past. Schools will be fortunate to be able to maintain most current programs. A very low cost of living adjustment (COLA) is expected from the state this year--only around 2 percent. Step and column increases on salary schedules plus increases in the cost of health benefits are expected to consume most of the COLA. "The huge state deficits with no letup in sight will make 2002 a leaner year for all California school districts, including ours," said Bozanich. "The biggest question mark is how long it will take for the economy to recover. Without question, California schools are in for a very tight year." Here in Southern California, Irvine recently announced the closure of one school and other cuts to balance the budget. As an economy measure, Irvine is discontinuing most of its lower 20-to-1 class sizes except in first grade. Enrollment growth appears to be easing up in the Long Beach Unified School District, so staffing must be monitored carefully to avoid surplus positions or overhiring. Slowdown in the economy means fewer jobs in Southern California and fewer families with school-age children moving here, so enrollment forecasts and staffing needs will be reviewed very carefully this spring.