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As I detail in my story today, the San Diego Unified School District’s deal to shorten the school year if voters fail to pass new taxes is a stark endorsement of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s threat to taxpayers.

Put simply, Brown says if voters don’t approve new taxes in November, the state won’t be able to afford to keep funding education at the same level. So, if the taxes fail, Brown has pledged to cut billions from the state’s education budget in the middle of the coming school year.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature made it possible for school districts to shorten their school year in order to save money in the event the taxes fail. It’s now legal for school districts in California to shorten their school year to 160 days.

But, of the five largest school districts in California, only one — San Diego Unified — has so far taken the legislature up on its offer and declared that a shorter school year will result if the taxes fail.

Los Angeles Unified and Long Beach Unified, the largest and third-largest districts in California respectively, have somewhat vague language in their union contracts that call for possibly cutting the school year, or other remedies, if the taxes fail. In the event of midyear cuts, those districts will essentially sit down with their unions and figure out what to do.

The other two biggest school districts, Elk Grove Unified outside Sacramento and Fresno Unified, both have enough money in reserves to weather the storm this year, even if the taxes fail.

Financial consultant Ron Bennett, who works with school districts around the state, said the fact that Long Beach and Los Angeles haven’t yet specifically spelled out shorter school years if the taxes fail is largely irrelevant.

The truth is that both those districts, and dozens more around the state, will have no other option than to cut instructional days if the taxes fail, Bennett said.

“In those districts where they’re still negotiating what will happen if the taxes fail, the economic factors are the same, they’re still going to have to make big cuts,” Bennett said. “It’s just the nexus isn’t quite as big as it is San Diego.”

When it comes to deciding what to do about the taxes, California school districts fall into one of three broad categories:

‘We’re OK’ Districts: School districts that have the reserves to make it through next year even if the taxes fail. In addition to the examples above, local district Poway Unified would fall into this category.

‘Wait and See’ Districts: These are districts like Long Beach and Los Angeles Unified, which will open negotiations with unions if and when the taxes fail and the governor cuts funding.

‘Defined Action’ Districts: Districts like San Diego Unified that have clearly spelled out what happens in the event of the taxes failing. Bennett estimates about 20 percent of districts in California fall into this category.

It’s also worth noting that many of the districts that fall into the “We’re OK” category are only really OK for next year.

Elk Grove Unified, for example, can scratch through the 2012-13 school year, but district spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich said the following year will be a lot tougher if the state cuts education funding.

“If that happens, we’ll have to look at very, very drastic reductions,” she said.

Even at Poway Unified, which Bennett called “one of the best managed districts in the state,” things start looking really rough in 2013-14 if education funding is cut.

Bennett said districts that are able to get through next year, even if the taxes fail, are districts that have spent the last few years cutting in order to save money.

Many of those districts have already increased class sizes, cut pay and benefits and shortened their school years (Elk Grove, for example, cut its school year by nine days for the last two years).

In short, Bennett said, while some districts are hanging in there, the taxes are immensely important for just about every district in California.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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