Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
When parents and teachers plead and protest to save beloved programs and people, strapped school districts have had to think twice about whether it is prudent, knowing a higher power is watching
County offices of education can refuse to sign off on unsound budgets and force school districts to rewrite them if financial projections are flimsy. They can even stop districts from cutting checks. And they have forced school districts to plan two years into the future, explaining publicly how their budgets will be balanced.
Now those powers are on hold.
Schools still have to show the county office that they can get through this coming school year. But this year, the county office cannot judge their budgets for the next year or the year after, the first step that can trigger more intensive interventions to keep school districts solvent. School districts can just disregard their advice on how to keep themselves afloat in the future.
The changes, made with little public discussion, came in an 11th-hour budget passed by Democratic lawmakers last week. They put a pause on oversight powers that were given to county offices of education two decades ago, after several school districts suffered financial meltdowns.
Now the biggest watchdog over school budgets has been pulled back at a time when more and more districts are weighing financial peril against the yearning to cancel painful, unpopular cuts.
Join thousands of San Diegans who get the day’s news in their inboxes every morning. Get the Morning Report now.
“School districts are under a lot of pressure,” said Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent of business services at the San Diego County Office of Education. “It’s hard sometimes to withstand that pressure.”
Financial hawks lambasted lawmakers for cutting back on budget oversight and pressed the governor to veto that part of the bill. School Services of California, which advises school districts on finances, argued it would put hundreds at risk of insolvency. The president of the California School Boards Association called it “a statutory invitation to fiscal recklessness.”
Teachers unions cheered the move. They argue the decisions should rest solely with the local school board members that voters elect and oust.
County offices tend to be more financially cautious than school boards, a step removed from the political and emotional turmoil of school cuts. While the San Diego County Office of Education does have an elected board, it attracts much less public attention and protest.
“Their budgets are not going to be changed or rejected by someone else,” said Jim Groth, a longtime Chula Vista teacher and a board member for the California Teachers Association, the biggest teachers union in the state. “It puts the decision-making back on local districts and local school boards.”
The San Diego County Office of Education has been a palpable presence as San Diego Unified crafted its budget this year, one that cost 1,400 workers their jobs. The school board nearly balked at sending out pink slips this spring, complaining they had proved agonizing and unnecessary in the past.
“I don’t think this is right. I don’t think this is smart,” President Richard Barrera lamented.
But school district staff warned the County Office could stop them from borrowing money to pay their bills. Barrera voted for pink slips, a politically poisonous step that soured the teachers union against him.
The loosened rules come at a time when year after year of cuts has left a stunning number of school districts on the financial brink. One out of seven school districts in California says it might not be able to cover its costs in the next two years. That is a sixfold increase over the number of school districts statewide that were stuck with those labels a decade ago.
Four of them are in San Diego County: Borrego Springs Unified, La Mesa-Spring Valley, Ramona Unified and San Marcos Unified. Now that the County Office is supposed to stop looking at their future budgets, some could lose that label. That would stop the office from taking aggressive steps to intervene if school districts don’t just follow their advice.
The county office also tells school districts what kind of cuts they should prepare for, something that has grown tricky as state budgets become less predictable. Earlier this year, the governor came up with a Plan A for school budgets if voters approved tax extensions and a Plan B with deeper cuts if they didn’t. County offices warned school districts to bet against the taxes when they made their plans.
“The county would not permit school districts to project revenues that may or may not come to pass,” said Ron Little, the San Diego Unified finance chief. “Now the state is saying, ‘Districts, do exactly that.’”
Schools could have been in trouble if they had counted on tax extensions: Republicans stopped them from even getting onto the ballot. But the County Office didn’t predict — and couldn’t have predicted — that lawmakers would later spare schools from cuts based on projected higher revenues.
“I don’t think the County Office of Education has any greater ability to predict how the state budget is going to turn out than our folks do,” Barrera said. He argued that while smaller districts might need their help, big ones like San Diego Unified don’t. “It’s about political decisions, not financial analysis.”
State finance officials have argued that schools would be unlikely to totally stop planning ahead, since it would hurt them later. School districts still need to make financial plans to get loans. And the county office can still offer advice to districts that want it.
Borrego Springs Unified Superintendent Carmen Garcia said the district is “sticking with the spirit” of the older law. San Marcos Unified Superintendent Kevin Holt says he’ll still plan for the future and listen to County Office advice.
The new law also removes a possible roadblock to rehiring teachers who were laid off.
The state budget could spare teachers, since schools were bracing for deeper cuts. But many districts still face future shortfalls. That could make school districts hesitate before rehiring, if they had to prove to their county office that their future budgets would balance.
Now they don’t have to.
Please contact Emily Alpert directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.