Teachers and principals are waiting to find out what the state budget means for schools. Here’s what we know so far, thanks to some good reporting from the Sacramento Bee and blogger John Fensterwald.

The school budget bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature would give schools about the same amount of money they got last year. But it relies on an optimistic revenue projection, and cuts are triggered if that money doesn’t roll in.

That is confusing for school districts like San Diego Unified, which has been hoping the budget would let them rehire some of the roughly 1,400 teachers and other workers they just laid off. Earlier this month, the school board pledged to reinstate hundreds of teachers and other workers if it got another $36 million from the state budget.

Now it looks like districts will get more money, which seems like a good reason to rehire. But if revenues fall short and cuts are triggered, districts could be stuck with teachers they can’t afford.

“The trigger is what makes it a bit uncertain,” said Monica Henestroza, who oversees government relations for San Diego Unified. “Money that is received, but is in jeopardy, is a very unique category. We haven’t typically had those kinds of triggers.”

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And that’s exactly what school districts across the state are worried about. The Sacramento Bee reports that because the state teachers union flexed its muscle in budget negotiations, school districts are supposed to ignore the threat of those triggered cuts while planning their budgets.

That’s a big win for out-of-work teachers, since it takes away a big argument for school districts to hold back on rehiring them. But it could leave districts stranded if they have to make cuts in the middle of the school year. The Bee quoted one superintendent who says why that could be problematic:

“Districts will be under tremendous pressure to bring people back from layoffs and, if there is a midyear cut, there is no way to lay people off,” said David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools. “How then do you handle a midyear cut?”

The law says schools could shorten the school year by another seven days to cope with any cuts triggered by lower revenues. But they would need to negotiate those cuts with unions. Blogger John Fensterwald quoted a consultant on why that’s such a problem:

“So the Budget is essentially limiting schools to only one tool in their toolbox — furloughs — for dealing with mid-year cuts,” Bob Blattner of Blattner & Associates, an education consulting firm based in Sacramento, wrote in a memo. “And furloughs are the equivalent of a two-handed saw; if the local bargaining units don’t help from their end, the tool is useless.”

So will San Diego Unified start rehiring teachers based on this budget? Henestroza said the school district is waiting to see what the final budget looks like, since the governor might reject specific parts of the bill.

There’s another wrinkle in the budget bill that has upset financial watchdogs, Fensterwald explains. School districts usually have to get their budgets vetted by their county office of education, including plans to show they will be financially stable at least two years out. This budget bill would stop that practice for now, Fensterwald writes. Financial watchdogs fear that stopping the county offices from looking at school district finances could be a disastrous step as they face ongoing financial threats.

The Bee quotes Natomas Unified interim Superintendent Walt Hanline, who calls the budget bill “the most irresponsible piece of legislation I’ve seen in my 35 years in education.” School Services of California, which advises districts on finances, wants the governor to veto that part of the bill.

The issue of future planning has loomed large in San Diego Unified, where the school board is divided about whether to try to patch together its budget a year at a time or plan against future financial threats.

Because the school district has promised raises starting next summer, financial staffers have urged the school board to be cautious about canceling cuts, fearful it will just end up deeper in the hole when the raises kick in. School board members Richard Barrera and Kevin Beiser argue that future budgets are so unpredictable that it makes no sense to sacrifice for predicted threats.

I’m ringing up school board members and the County Office of Education to get their thoughts about how the budget will impact local schools. Check back soon for more updates on the blog and on Twitter.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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