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School budget crisis will take local creativity

The "educational excellence" descriptor, so often chanted as a goal by politicians in the halls of Sacramento in recent years, has given way this month to "basic survival" following the introduction last week of the governor's budget that includes massive slashes in state funding for public schools.

Higher fees for community colleges and state universities, fewer teachers and cuts in educational programs are part of a Draconian budget proposal that seeks to cure a $35 billion deficit partially through $5.4 billion in school cuts over the next 18 months.

As staggering as that number is, it is made all the worse by the fact that $2.38 billion of those cuts are being proposed immediately, before June 30 of this year. Many of the state's 1,000-plus school districts, already in fiscal peril through relatively flat funding this past year and higher costs, will be pushed to the brink of bankruptcy as they seek very painful ways to cut costs and to do so quickly.

At this writing, local school districts had not yet calculated all the impacts of the new cuts proposed by the governor, but it was clear that reductions will no longer be confined to district office levels as has been the case in recent years. Most, if not all districts, have already trimmed their central office bureaucracies, lean and mean, and there isn't all that much fat left to shed.

That leaves school sites and classrooms -- sacred venues that have been largely off-limits to funding cutbacks in recent years -- to bear much of the brunt of state funding cutbacks. As early as it may be in the budget adjustment process, it's still safe to say there won't be a "sacred cow" left unexamined or untouched in the process of slashing costs.

While parents, teachers and other school site stakeholders will no doubt take to the podium at school board meetings to try to protect their special programs and interests in the upcoming weeks, it may not prove to be all that fruitful. School boards have relatively little latitude or flexibility, considering that well over 80 percent of most district budgets are in salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees. And much of the district's budget is restricted or categorical funding, designated for specific programs such as class-size reduction and teacher mentoring programs.

Parents, teachers, administrators, local business people and community members at large can be far more effective in preserving quality programs that are at risk by seeking alternative ways to provide funding for those resources. In other words, local stakeholders need to get creative and raise monies at the grassroots level to protect vocational training, arts, drama, music, athletics, after-school and other enriching programs that are at risk.

Many schools already have foundations in place through which parents and other community members raise monies to provide special resources. Most schools have partnerships in place with local businesses and organizations that contribute funding or volunteer time to help those schools. Every PTA or similar organization has cookie and bake sales and children knocking on doors to sell wrapping paper, candy bars and the like.

These are worthy and viable ways to raise funds, but they and other strategies must be greatly expanded and added to in order to be effective. Parents and children are not going to sell $2.38 billion in candy bars, cookies and wrapping paper to cure the budget shortfall between now and June 30. For that matter, most school foundations are nowhere large enough yet to deal with the coming shortfalls. And, the community and business partnerships, at their present levels, are even less capable.

Most of us can't begin to fathom just how much money $2.38 billion is. It may be more useful to break the overall sum down to the individual school in which a parent's child is enrolled, or which serves the neighborhood where other educational stakeholders live. In other words, how does the budget cutback affect my neighborhood school?

First of all, parents and other community members need to shed the rummage sale mentality that pervades their communities and educate their neighbors on the need to give substantively to their local schools in order to make up for what is no longer coming from Sacramento. Every community member -- parent, employer and mere citizen -- has a critical stake in how well children are being educated in every neighborhood school.

Community members need to invest far more sacrificially than they have in the past era of good times. And, if enough individuals do so, it can make a significant difference in how many resources local schools will have to provide quality and educationally rich programs for local school children.

For example, what would be the positive impacts if a good number of parents contributed to their neighborhood school just half of what they would pay in tuition to send their children to a private school? Keep in mind such a contribution would likely be tax deductible if the school has a foundation in place. As far as I know, private school tuition is not a tax-deductible expense.

If the school does not have a foundation in place, a good place to start would be to provide the resources to organize one. Most people think nothing of spending a couple hundred dollars on a sport jacket or business suit. Again, that level of contribution to an individual school by many stakeholders would go a long way to curing the shortfalls being sustained by that school.

Some local businesses donate a portion of what they sell over a period of time to the schools that serve the neighborhoods where they do business, much the same way they contribute in telethons and other charity events. That whole effort can and should be expanded with a little creativity to more businesses and organizations.

Contributing monies to buy books for school classrooms and libraries, fund after-school staffing and instructional materials, purchase band instruments and uniforms, and a long list of other needs will significantly lessen the negative impact of the state budget crisis.

We will talk about more specific educational budget issues and priorities in future columns as the state budget process moves forward in the coming months. Meanwhile, though, as the old saying goes, "Charity begins at home."

For this and the coming year, that goes for the neighborhood school as well.

Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at ginger.hovenic@sddt.com.

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