More California school districts than ever before are heading toward insolvency. The State Department of Education’s Second Interim Status Report for 2011-12, released yesterday, named 188 districts with serious financial problems; of those, 12 have negative certifications, meaning they won’t be able to meet payroll and other bills for this academic year.
It’s a steep increase over the first interim report, released last February, which we wrote about here. At that time, there were seven districts on the negative list and 120 in qualified status. With the increases, more than 2.6 million of California’s 6.2 million school children attend schools facing uncertain financial futures.
“This is the kind of record no one wants to set. Across California, parents, teachers, and administrators are increasingly wondering how to keep their schools’ lights on, their bills paid, and their doors open,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “The deep cuts this budget crisis has forced — and the uncertainties about what lies ahead — are taking an unprecedented and unacceptable toll on our schools.”
Given the years of budget cuts to education, the new numbers didn’t come as a surprise to school finance officials, said Mike Hulsizer, head of governmental affairs for the Kern County Office of Education. But it will get worse if neither of the school tax initiatives passes next November. “There is no question that this understates the risk that districts are facing,” said Hulsizer, because many of the districts counted on funds from Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase in planning their 2012-13 budgets.
K-12 schools would receive an extra $2.8 billion if the initiative passes, but Brown is proposing cutting K-12 schools about $5 billion – $441 per student – midyear if it fails. Districts weren’t ordered to budget one way or another. Although some county superintendents wanted schools to budget for the worst-case scenario, others told school districts to plan either way, but make sure they have a Plan B in case of a negative vote at the ballot box. “The county’s position is that a district needs to be able to weather the trigger if it does happen,” said Santa Clara County Office of Education Superintendent Chuck Weis. “If a district is already on the edge, then plan for the worst.”
Joel Montero, CEO of the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), told a state Assembly committee two weeks ago that small and rural districts face the largest impact from another round of midyear cuts. “Small and tiny rural districts don’t really have an economy of scale,” said Montero. They don’t have enough money or students to absorb any additional losses, particularly when those losses come in the form of deferrals, the $9 billion-plus that the state owes to school districts.
“So the decision that you have to make as a school district is whether or not you can afford to fund that deferral for the term and if you can’t then it becomes a cut for you in a way,” Montero explained to subcommittee members.
Five of the nine districts that received a negative certification fall into the small and/or rural category. The tiniest, La Grange Elementary School District in Stanislaus County, will be shutting down at the end of this school year and sending its six students to other districts.
Two of the districts, Vallejo City Unified and South Monterey Joint Union High School, have already been bailed out by the state and are under a state-appointed administrator. Linda Grundhoffer, the Chief Business Official in South Monterey – formerly King City Joint Union High School District – said ever since the district went under state control in 2009 the onslaught of budget cuts “are just making it harder for this district to recover.” The district is seeking to lower the interest rate on its state loan from 5.44 percent to 1 percent through legislation, but so far Senate bill 1240 and Assembly bill 1858 are on the suspense files in the appropriations committees of their respective houses.
In an unusual twist, this year’s negative list also contains a small but very wealthy district. At a little over $170,000, the median household income in the San Mateo County foothills community of Portola Valley is nearly three times the state average. But the district is now trying to stave off a state takeover after an audit found a shortfall of about $850,000 for this school year plus an additional half-million dollars allegedly misappropriated by the former superintendent, who’s already facing felony charges stemming from his tenure as chief financial officer in the neighboring Woodside Elementary District.
The list of districts on the negative and qualified lists may continue to set somber new records depending on what happens in November. “Second interim certifications are assuming a better budget environment than realistically may be there after November,” FCMAT’s Montero told TOPed. “Without that assumption, it is likely the numbers of qualified and negative districts would have been higher.”