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Tom Torlakson and Bill Cirone: School Budget Cuts Taking a Steep Toll

Districts in Santa Barbara County and throughout the state are in fiscal jeopardy

Do you think California’s schools can withstand another round of budget cuts?

Ask the high-schoolers studying English with Desa Mandarino, the first-graders in Rosalie Jones’ class, the kindergartners with Nancy O’Halloran or the music students of Teri Lynn Regalado-Yepez.

The English “scholars,” as she calls them, in Mandarino’s classes at San Marcos High School take part in the school’s rigorous, nine-week block schedule. They will be losing up to nine school days — nearly two weeks of learning — should further cuts be necessary.

In Jones’ room at Taylor Elementary School, the classroom isn’t big enough for the 32 students to also have a reading area. Some students are sitting behind desks and have to peek around the legs to see Jones reading a story. Jones fears the hardest hit are those students in the middle academically, not struggling or needing extra challenges, because there isn’t enough time for the individual attention she strives to give every student.

O’Halloran’s kindergarteners at Tunnell Elementary most likely will soar in number. Classroom staples such as paper and supplies will get used up much more quickly, leading to a drastic reduction in art and other hands-on projects.

Sadly, the 325 music students in Regalado-Yepez’s glee club, music appreciation and remedial programs for periods 0 and 7 at Carpinteria Middle School were devastated that their teacher was laid off, and that periods 0 and 7 were eliminated all together.

Across California, three straight years of budget cuts have created a financial emergency in our schools. Collectively, schools have lost $18 billion in funding during the last three years, roughly a third of what it costs to run our schools for a year.

As a result, California has fallen to 47th in the nation in school funding per student. Thousands of teachers, nurses, counselors and other school employees have lost their jobs. More than 100 school districts are in fiscal jeopardy.

Schools in Santa Barbara County are hurting right along with the rest of the state.

Local school districts’ plans to deal with a $19.6 million loss countywide include a doubling down on cuts that have already been made: extending furlough days for teachers and staff, increasing class sizes, reducing the school year up to nine days in some cases, and cutting transportation and summer school. Every district will have to cut educational programs. To date, 173 teachers have received layoff notices countywide, as well as 81 staff and managers.

Recognizing that schools have already endured too many cuts, Gov. Jerry Brown made some wise but difficult decisions about balancing California’s budget. He proposed steep cuts to many programs, spared schools from further reductions and extended several temporary tax measures.

The governor’s proposal represents a sharp departure from what has become the norm in Sacramento at budget time. For years, rather than finding a long-term solution to the deficit, the state has cut, borrowed and used accounting gimmicks to paper over the problem.

Recognizing that it’s finally time to put California’s fiscal house back in order, most lawmakers have — reluctantly — signed on to support the governor’s plan. But his proposal can’t take effect without bipartisan support, and no Republicans have signed on.

Some are suggesting that the modest recovery we have seen in revenue projections are sufficient, and that we can forgo the tax extensions without impacting education.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Even if every dollar of new projected revenues went to education, they wouldn’t make up for the billions of dollars in cuts and funding deferrals public schools have suffered in recent years.

What’s more, our schools can’t wait any longer for a budget agreement. By law, school districts are required to finalize their budgets by July 1. Without action by the Legislature that includes passage of the tax extensions, our schools could be forced to carry out yet another round of cuts.

We are at a tipping point for California’s future. Despite our budget woes, student performance has improved every year.

And in every corner of California, students are eager to learn, parents are engaged and active in their children’s education, and teachers, administrators and school employees are working day and night to help our students achieve.

But veteran teachers are becoming demoralized. Energetic young teachers are losing their jobs. And we’re at risk of losing an entire generation of potential teachers who will never enter the most important profession in the world.

For decades, world-class public schools and universities were the economic engines that fueled California’s success. We have a shared responsibility — and a keen self-interest — in their future.

Please ask your state senator and Assembly member to support a realistic plan to stop further cuts to schools, and put California back where it belongs — leading the way.

Tom Torlakson is California’s superintendent of public instruction. Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.

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