Trigger cuts to K-12 less than feared, but transportation still takes a hit

K-12 schools were spared the brunt of Gov. Jerry Brown's $1 billion in mid-year trigger cuts announced Tuesday, but districts still face the loss of home-to-school transportation funding, which will hit some much harder than others.

The good news coming out of the Capitol was that K-12 revenue limit cuts will total slightly more than $79 million - or just under $14 per student on a statewide average.

District's had been bracing for per student cuts ranging from $180- to $300 based on changing predictions, including a November budget forecast issued by the Legislative Analyst's Office that foresaw $1.4 billion in mid-year cuts for K-12 education.

The governor's plan also provides districts authority to reduce the school year by an additional half-day.

Still, the administration is once again taking the optimistic view that the California economy is set for recovery - a position Brown and the Legislature prematurely adopted in June.

But new information showing higher-than-expected personal income tax and corporate tax income, combined with November sales tax revenues that exceeded expectations, led Department of Finance analysts to conclude that revenue will come in almost $1.5 billion higher than what the LAO forecast.

While the difference wasn't enough to avoid the trigger cuts, programmed into the budget last June, it was sufficient to reduce the hit schools will take in revenue limit funding.

The $248 million schools were expecting for transportation, however, won't be available, leaving beleaguered districts trying to determine how they will fund the gap.

Sue Hess, superintendent at the Meadows Union School District in Imperial County, said the cut to transportation could potentially prove far more serious for schools that are both located in rural areas and have high numbers of students from low-income families.

Ninety- percent of our students are transported and if they miss the bus - they miss school," she said. "We can't afford that - not only would we be losing the ADA, but our kids need to be [in] class every day. Transportation has already been consolidated and cut over the last three years; there is no additional place to cut - this will just add to the contribution that our general fund is already making to transportation costs."

Los Angeles Unified School District wasted no time in responding to the governor's proposal - the behemoth district announced Tuesday that it would file a lawsuit today to block the cuts to transportation, saying it cannot absorb the $38 million cut it faces as part of the trigger.

"A cut of this magnitude is devastating as it would deplete half of the District's transportation budget after it has provided half a year of transportation services," district superintendent John Deasy said in a statement. "We stand with our students to say enough is enough."

Avoiding cuts to transportation programs means districts will look elsewhere within their already-lean budgets, potentially cutting more support staff or classroom spending.

It could also mean that Legislature leaders might be compelled to weigh in regardless that it would take the governor's agreement to rewrite the trigger provision.

"Now that the revenue limit cut has been significantly minimized, all the attention shifts to the school transportation cut which begs for re-examination," said education lobbyist Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations & Advocacy - corporate host of the Cabinet Report.

"The cut is a disproportionate hit to small and rural districts, in particular, while also hammering a couple of the largest districts in the state," Gordon said. "The kids this cut hurts the most are those who are disadvantaged, disabled and struggling the most to stay in school."

Brown, on Tuesday, said the state has no choice but to make the cuts, given that it still faces a $13 billion budget deficit and an economy that is showing signs of life but remains sluggish.

He used the opportunity to remind Californians that his proposed tax measure on the November 2012 ballot would raise an additional $7 million in revenues and avoid more cuts heading into 2013.

"These cuts are not good, but we have to live within our means," the governor told a room full of media gathered to hear his report. "You can't provide money you don't have. You either cut or you tax - there's no third way."

Republican Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chair Jim Nielsen of Gerber issued a statement following the governor's announcement, calling the budget cuts "a result of the misguided budget priorities of the majority party" and said the problem continues to be overspending.

"Assembly Republicans have consistently advocated for both fully funding for education under Prop 98 and for spending within our means," Nielsen wrote. "The fact that revenues have increased over the past year, yet spending outpaces those revenues, argues for more spending control, not a massive tax increase like the governor announced last week."

Hardest hit under the trigger cuts are the two state university systems, the Department of Developmental Services and In-Home Supportive Services, each of which loses $100 million. The remainder of a total $601 million in first tier trigger cuts is split between the juvenile justice system, the Department of Corrections, MediCal, Community Colleges, child care programs and grants to local libraries.