So, my head’s spinning a little bit.

I just spent a few hours sitting in a room full of accountants, school district officials and CFOs, discussing the inner workings of California’s budget and its possible impact on schools.

And boy, it’s ugly. Not ugly as in bad — things are actually finally looking up for California’s schools after years of seemingly never-ending cuts. But the whole system for getting money from our pockets, via taxes, into schools, is a big, complicated maze — even to the experts who convene to discuss it.

Despite all the jargon, the estimates and the uncertainty, however, I was able to garner a few key points from today’s budget workshop. I’m going to further explore one of these in a bigger story tomorrow. The others are here.

Pretty Much Everyone Agrees Things Are Getting Better

While getting coffee during a break, I heard a school official talking to another.

“At least it’s better than all the years of draconian cuts,” he said.

And that’s the first point here: Many of the pre-eminent experts on California’s budget were at this workshop, which was put on by the financial consultants School Services of California in Garden Grove. And they all seem to agree that things are looking up.

I already wrote about the new hopefulness at the San Diego Unified School District, and it seems that the state’s school districts are readying themselves for a few years of relative calm. Nobody’s breaking out the champagne, but increased revenues are expected, and there’s a lot of relief about that.

“We are no longer talking about cuts. We’re talking about getting some new money,” said School Services of California Vice President Maureen Evans. “This is a window of opportunity. Instead of just reinstating what we’ve had to cut, we can think about new programs and new reforms that we can invest in that will improve education in the long-run.”

Proposition 30 Was a Big Deal

In his presentation today, School Services President Ron Bennett thanked the audience.

“The reason this budget is balanced is one thing and only one thing: Prop. 30,” he said. “The education community bailed the state of California out by passing Prop. 30.”

We’ve written extensively about Proposition 30, and to truly understand where state education funding is going in the next few years, read this guide to the proposition. The main takeaway: About $3 billion in new money will end up making its way to schools in the 2013-14 school year.

There’s a Lot of Uncertainty Out There Still

Bottom line: Nobody knows how well schools in California are going to do over the next few years. There are too many variables.

As Bennett pointed out in his presentation, 40 percent of state revenues here come from 1 percent of the population.

If rich people are doing well — basically if the stock market is booming and real estate is increasing in value — then California has more money to play with. But if just a few people are negatively impacted, state revenues take a hit.

There are also other factors that could seriously negatively impact state revenues. Cuts to federal education programs could still come down the pike, and the nation’s economic recovery could sputter, putting more pressure on Sacramento.

Brown Wants to Radically Reshape State Education Spending

This is the point I will be expanding on further tomorrow: Brown has proposed radical changes to the way school districts are allocated state funding.

Very broadly, Brown wants to change the formula by which districts are funded. He wants to eliminate a broad swath of programs called “categoricals” that have for years provided set amounts of money to districts for specific purposes.

Rather than giving districts money that they can only spend on certain things, Brown’s new model would allocate cash that doesn’t come with restrictions. Districts would be free to spend that money how they wish.

To divide that money up, Brown has devised a new formula that allocates money according to the needs of students.

For large, urban districts like San Diego Unified, the new model could be great news.

Layoffs Could Still Happen

Overall, even if everything goes right, there’s still not all that much more money out there for California schools next year.

Like San Diego Unified, lots of districts are projecting deficits for 2013-14, and a large part of today’s workshop focused on managing this year’s collective bargaining efforts.

Districts may find themselves in a sticky situation as they start negotiating with staff: The public knows there is a lot more money available for education, and they know they’re paying higher taxes, but districts may still be forced to make layoffs to stay afloat next year.

That could be a tricky line for districts to walk, and today’s speakers cautioned that school officials will face a lot of pressure to restore services and keep any cuts whatsoever from the classroom.

As we’ve described, that budget journey could be especially interesting to watch at San Diego Unified, where the district faces an estimated budget of $84 million next school year.

We’ll be watching to see what happens.

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

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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

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