A sea change in school funding priorities could give local boards more money and decision-making power than they've had in decades. But those districts that trimmed their financial sails to weather the recession may be best positioned to catch the wave.
"Those districts that made the cuts early and got in front of it, they are really feeling the benefits of having made those cuts," said Don Gatti, who oversees school district budgets for the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
Still, despite the stabilizing effects of the Proposition 30 tax initiative passed by California voters in November, Gatti said that "some (districts) are still deficit spending and are staring down the barrel of cuts."
Friday was the last day to notify teachers they might be laid off at school year's end. While a proposed shift in state funding would bring nearly $30 million more to Stanislaus County schools next year, dozens of layoff warnings went out.
Modesto City Schools sent 10 layoff notices, district head of human resources Craig Rydquist said.
Denair Unified avoided layoffs until close to bankruptcy and now must slash staff and salaries to avoid a state takeover. Riverbank Unified, digging deeply into reserves, expects to cut 14 teachers.
Meanwhile, teachers in Ceres, Turlock, Stanislaus Union and Empire expect to be seeing fatter paychecks, and others still negotiating may receive raises. Hughson Unified bumped salaries this year. Ripon Unified will enrich its music programs. Turlock Unified will be recruiting teachers after 59 retirements in June.
This year, the gap between those districts struggling and those flourishing stands wide and visible.
"It's difficult for the public to understand, after they generously voted in Prop. 30 really to support schools, how one district is in good financial shape and the one right next to it really isn't," Gatti said.
The spread, in most cases, boils down to declining enrollment and how it was handled. State cutbacks and fewer students decimated school budgets here, beginning in 2008-09. But federal stimulus spending and jobs money backfilled those losses for several years.
"We were bailed out by the federal government with one-time money. It was just a Band-Aid," Gatti said. Cuts were still needed, he said, and "that's what several of our districts did not do a good job of. That's not easy to do, because 90 percent of our expenses are people."
Here are financial question marks in district balance sheets for the 2013-14 school year:
Stanislaus County would get about $400 million more every year, starting in 2019, if Gov. Jerry Brown's Local Control Funding Formula is adopted as proposed.
No district would get less under the plan, but some districts in this area would nearly double their per-child allotment because of high numbers of poor children, English learners and foster children.
"It's the biggest change in school finance in 40 years and we think it's really important that the state get it right," said Ron Bennett, head of the fiscal consulting firm School Services of California Inc.
The fiscal do-over would help even out vast differences in per-child attendance money, the meat and potatoes of school funding. Rates used now are based on calculations made in the 1970s.
Under the existing system, Sylvan Union in north Modesto, for example, gets $5,765 per year per child, while the same youngster attending Roberts Ferry Union would bring in $10,363. Under the governor's proposal, Sylvan's rate would slowly rise to $9,294. Roberts Ferry, with relatively few poor kids or English learners, would remain at $10,363, still above the state norm.
Besides the change in basic dollars, the state is poised to release all but a few key categories, such as special education and school lunch programs, from its hodgepodge of funding pockets.
"I am elated that we will be able to make decisions at the local level that fit our district's needs instead of a 'one size fits all' model dictated by those who do not know who we are or what we need," said Turlock Superintendent Sonny Da Marto.
Where once much of the school money arrived with strings attached so much for books, for buses, for dental checks, for dozens more now most specialized program money will pitch into the big general fund pot.
The change will give districts far greater discretion to draw up an arts programs, beef up ag classes or try innovative science programs. Pressure will be on, however, to restore salaries and school days for the many districts that chopped a week off the calendar.
Comparing prerecession 2007-08 average teacher salaries to 2010-11, the latest EdSource figures, shows a range of wage drops. Modesto City teachers, at $70,199 the highest-paid in the county, also gave up the most on average, about $5,000. Ceres teachers lost about 5.3 percent and Turlock teachers gave up 0.5 percent, in the EdSource compilation.
Support staff, as a rule, took at least the same salary cuts and lost more jobs. Often part time, they cost districts far less and can be laid off with 60 days' notice.
Schools will be largely spared 8.2 percent federal funding cuts until July 1. But when they hit, they will strike where it hurts. Federal education dollars provide services for poor children, Head Start classes, teacher training and English-learner help.
Riverbank Unified gets 12 percent of its funding from federal programs, said Superintendent Daryl Camp. Sequestration will mean $232,000 less for the strapped district. The cuts could not come at a worse time for Riverbank, which is struggling to get back on financial track in the face of declining enrollment.
For districts that kept in front of the recession's bite, however, things are looking up.
"This year's budget picture is rosier due to the passage of Proposition 30 and the sacrifice(s) of our employees," summed up Sandy Putnam, chief business officer for Stanislaus Union School District.
Gatti echoed that sentiment. "It just feels like we're right on the cusp of things getting a whole lot better," he said.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin.
This year is a mixed bag of local school districts cutting, adding or holding steady until they have solid funding numbers. Here are emailed comments from superintendents who responded to a Bee query sent to regional districts:
CERES UNIFIED Scott Siegel: We restored our salaries fully at the March 12 meeting. We have no (teacher layoffs).
EMPIRE UNION Bob Price: We will not be sending (layoff) notices to teachers or classified staff. The board voted 5-0 to notify two administrators that they will be reassigned to the classroom.
HUGHSON UNIFIED Brian Beck: We are laying off one preschool teacher. We have no salary concessions or furlough days to restore. (Hughson raised salaries this school year.)
OAKDALE UNIFIED Marc Malone: The OJUSD will not be issuing any (layoff) notices for certificated or classified staff. The current budget looks positive as long as the governor's current proposed budget is adopted by July 1.
RIPON UNIFIED Louise Johnson: We are not doing any reductions in force this year and are in negotiations to discuss restorations. We are also restoring a half-time music position to full time and are excited to bring back more vocal and instrumental music options to our students.
SALIDA UNION Twila Tosh: There were four temporary and 11 supplemental (teacher) positions (cut). These positions provide interventions for our students and prep time for our fourth-fifth (grade) teachers as well as elementary music program. We will add back as funds allow, depending on the impact of sequestration. Our class ratios will continue to be 30:1 for K-3 and 33:1 for 4-8. (One administrator also cut.)
STANISLAUS UNION Chief Business Official Sandy Putnam: Our district is not sending out any (layoff) notices. This year's budget picture is rosier due to the passage of Proposition 30 and the sacrifice of our employees in reduction to work and instructional days these past several years as well as other expenditure reductions. Our two-year contract with our unions to have four furlough and four reduced instructional days expires on June 30.
SYLVAN UNION John Halverson: Layoffs will only be for supplemental teachers as a precaution (in case changes in state law mandate temporary teachers be notified).
TURLOCK UNIFIED Sonny Da Marto: We have 59 retirements. The incentive was either a golden handshake of two years extra service credit or $30,000 cash. The only layoffs we have issued are directly related to the adult school (funding) uncertainties. As far as salary restoration, we have contract language that will automatically take effect if (basic funding rises), a 0.5 percent restoration.