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School districts need local flexibility in budget crisis

In past columns, we've talked about the need for school districts as well as parents and other public education stakeholders to become more creative in dealing with the drastic cutbacks being proposed in public funding. The need for local creativity becomes all that more apparent as the year begins to unfold, considering that Sacramento no longer will have all the resources needed to mandate strict compliance in how various educational programs are to be staffed and operated.

To date, there's been little evidence of any flexibility at the local level or, for that matter, any thinking "outside the box" regarding how to deal with the revenue shortages. Several local school superintendents have said publicly in recent weeks that, without any flexibility, they are having to implement capital outlay and hiring freezes and will have to "stuff" more students into most, if not all, their classrooms. The continuation of such programs as music, arts and sports is up in the air, according to some school district chiefs.

Those are hard choices and they are, for lack of a better term, knee-jerk reactions to the budget shortfalls that have plagued this state for decades. Scrapping class size reduction in toto, for example, would be a major step, but, in its present format, the program is quite costly, due to extensive compliance measures. It is a prime example of a state program that has strict -- if not outright stifling -- requirements that make schools literally jump through hoops to maintain exact numbers of students in the smaller classrooms, lest they lose funding. The cash-strapped state is now acknowledging what local districts have known all along -- that level of compliance costs great sums of money.

If there is a bright side to the budget emergency it would be the fact that crises usually produce opportunities to make changes for the better. One of those changes could be to reduce the more costly compliance requirements at the state level and shift more control of our schools' educational programs to the local level, thereby giving local school districts and their principals the flexibility to control and adapt their respective teaching and learning environments to fit their local circumstances and needs. In other words, give local schools and districts the flexibility they need to deal with the reduced funding brought about by the state's fiscal woes.

One idea is now in the form of an Assembly bill, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher, R-Brea, and State Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado. The bipartisan measure would ease the statutory requirements for class size reduction in a way that would permit school boards and district administrators to control class size with some common-sense leeway. Under present law, every class under the class size reduction program must maintain an absolute maximum of 20 students. Schools are actually penalized for any class that exceeds the state-mandated 20:1 ratio, no matter how temporary the period of time may be during which more students were in a single class. Daucher and Alpert's bill would allow some classes under the program to go to 21:1 or even 22:1 in class-size ratios as long as the overall ratio for school site remains at 20:1. That's the kind of flexibility that schools need in order to avoid hiring more teachers than they actually need.

Other ideas are more embryonic, but worthwhile to consider. There have been groups in recent weeks surveying school districts throughout the state, looking for innovative ideas that may prove helpful to districts wrestling with their budget cutbacks.

For one thing, laws should be changed to allow schools to defer purchases, conduct more outsourcing of personnel needs, and charge fees for after-school events. Capistrano Unified Superintendent Jim Fleming has led a statewide group of school district superintendents to change or repeal those laws that prohibit the use of smarter buying practices.

Districts need to turn to the city councils in their jurisdictions for help. The districts in three affluent Bay area counties are looking to their cities to step up to the plate through more joint-use agreements for parks and libraries as well as new tax revenues.

Cutting the school year without cutting teachers and programs is one tactic being used in Oregon, where two weeks of the school year have been lopped off. Oregonians chose to maintain the quality of educational services in their schools, even if for a shorter school year. Teachers are now modifying their curriculum to fit within the shorter instructional years.

Parents and community members need to mobilize and fight to preserve what quality educational programs and resources their schools may have. School board meetings are always attended by special interest groups who take to the podium to advocate their interests. Parents who typically have not attended board meetings now need to do so in order to protect the programs that benefit their children. Get involved.

Last, parents and other public school stakeholders need to confer, connect and read. Get connected with others who have faced these dilemmas before. One such crossroad is the Public Strategies Group, a public sector consultancy that specializes in the "reinventing government" issue. Perhaps the group's Web site, www.psgrp.com, could be a rich resource of advice and food for thought.

The current budget crisis will be with us for some time to come -- many predict for the next 3-5 years, minimally. What school districts do now will by no means be the sum total of the entire drastic cutback measures that will be needed. Our districts will be dealing with budget cutbacks well beyond this present fiscal year.

Local school boards, administrators, teachers and parents need to take advantage of any new flexibility and work aggressively to find creative solutions that will not destroy the quality of education our children are receiving. As school officials start this journey of cuts and reinvention, remember the children in the classroom. Take the opportunity to think creatively in this time of crises.

Too much is at stake not to do so.

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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