San Diego Business Journal

School May Be Out for Several Years

Local school district officials don't appear to be wholeheartedly buying into the governor's quick-fix approach to patch public education's gaping hole in this year's state budget.

Gov Gray Davis is offering a two-month delay of about $1.7 billion in payments to districts statewide so the money will show up on next year's books rather than in the fiscal year that ends June 30. While education leaders in Sacramento are busy pushing the plan as the only alternative to cutting $1.7 billion permanently, local administrators want bottom-line figures for budgets that must be approved by July 1.

That answer may not come until the 11th hour. If Davis' plan makes it to the floor of the Legislature as a separate bill from the overall state budget, both the Assembly and the Senate must approve it by a two-thirds majority within the next six weeks.

Those stipulations alone leave plenty of room for skepticism. The state Legislature, even in bountiful times, drags out budget talks well past the July 1 deadline. School districts, like most city and county governments, can't afford themselves that luxury, strictly adhering to a budget timeline.

To their credit, school administrators understand this is not a one-year problem. California's $24 billion deficit is such a huge gash that school districts likely face cuts for the next several years. And no local district appears to be deluding itself into believing Davis' approach solves anything for the long term. Robbing Peter to pay Paul may keep the wolves at bay in an election year, but look for the other shoe to drop hard the Wednesday after election day.

For better or worse, schools have begun the bloodletting. Most districts already are in the midst of a hiring freeze with little money to make essential repairs to even the most basic equipment. Principals are being forced to choose which programs and personnel to maintain for the 2002-03 school year.

Despite the spin, Davis' plan is not some panacea that will save all arts, music and vital after-school programs. While it may improve this year's overall picture, come June 2003, the hard decisions made in 2002 will get even harder.

What this all comes down to is the private sector again will be asked to provide what the government can't seem to do on a consistent basis , supplement our children's education. Business leaders have long rallied for a better-educated work force, yet public education can't sustain any long-term momentum.

Businesses have partnered with public schools, lobbied for any number of programs in Sacramento, offered incentives, internships and donated time, employees and equipment, even fought for bond measures like 1998's landmark Proposition MM. Parents have done about as much as they can, digging deeper every year to support their children's education.

Yet here we are again, as administrators prepare to go hat-in-hand to the private sector to help tide them over. Rather than crisis management fixes like the governor is proposing, permanent, untouchable funding must be in place to protect education from such extreme budgetary swings.

Considering the governor managed to turn a $12 billion surplus into a $24 billion deficit in a year's time, such long-range planning is out of the question until he is out of office.

, Rick Bell