By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City News Editor

Santa Cruz County schools are making the best of a bad situation. Due to this year’s multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, California’s public K-12 schools saw a $3 billion cut in their funding. Combine this with a record student enrollment, and public schools in the state anticipate dubious times ahead. California educators bemoan the budget, frustrated by the state’s continued lack of commitment to properly fund education. According to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2008 was supposed to be a “year of education.”

A January press release from the California Federation of Teachers reads, “What was billed as the Year of Education is shaping up as the Year of Cutting Education. Cuts in education funding … propel our state backward.”

Based on certain factors, like test scores, California schools nationally rank among the bottom in public K-12 education. Per student spending is $1,000 below the national average. During the 2005-06 school year, California’s student-teacher ratio ranked 49th in the country.

Santa Cruz is no exception to the plague of overburdened schools.

“This year, there was a 0.68 percent increase for the county in school funding, which is nowhere near covering the cost of the increase of students,” said Ken Wagman, a member of the Santa Cruz City School Board.

In anticipation of depleted funding, Santa Cruz County schools dipped into their reserve funding, a move to avoid firing desperately needed teachers.

An overall sense of dread prevails among Santa Cruz’s educators. However, despite significantly depleted funds and the sacrifices that come along with less money, schools in the county are stretching their dollars as far as they will go.

“Given the resources, we do an outstanding job,” said Michael C. Watkins, superintendent for Santa Cruz County schools. “Can we do better? Absolutely.”

So, what’s the problem?

“We fund schools in California differently then most other states,” said Kip Telléz, chair of the education department at UC Santa Cruz.

“Most states distribute funds based on property taxes,” he said. “In California, we fund the entire state’s schools on sales and income taxes.”

These two taxes are intrinsically tied to the economy. In strong economic times, such as the dot-com boom, these taxes bring a surplus to the budget. A year of economic crisis, like 2008, means the state runs a deficit.

Whenever California has an abundance of money, Telléz said, legislatures take money for their pet projects and fail to save up for years of poor economic performance. When those bad years come, everyone is scrambling for money.

“Teachers can speak for themselves. Prison guards can speak,” Telléz said. “Kids, they can’t speak. They can’t vote.”

Funding for California’s public schools wasn’t always such a roller coaster ride. Before 1978, the majority of funds came from property taxes. Distribution was done on a county level, with money collected from property taxes going directly to local schools.

Every county set its own property tax rate, which led to dramatic differences between counties that taxed heavily and those that taxed lightly, often based on socioeconomic factors.

In Serrano v. Priest (1976), the California Supreme Court ruled that a property tax-based finance system for public schools was unconstitutional under the state’s equal protection clause.

Kris Vosburg, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said that Serrano v. Priest is the impetus for California’s current system of public school funding.

“The California Supreme Court ruled in Serrano v. Priest to equalize spending so no one district would get more money then a school in Compton,” Vosburg said.

As a result of Serrano, the state government collected every county’s property taxes, than redistributed them evenly to all school districts.

Lawmakers and education advocates seemed satisfied by this new system. However, rumblings stirred among Californians who resented a mandate sending their tax money to schools their kids didn’t attend.

Observers saw it coming, but no one was prepared for the implications of the Tax Revolt of 1978. Led by taxpayer champion Howard Jarvis, citizens rebelled against the state’s onerous taxes by voting for a series of measures to lower Californians’ tax burden.

The Tax Revolt’s most notorious creation is Proposition 13.

“What Prop. 13 did was make property taxes predictable for homeowners and saved them 30 percent of what they were paying the state for their property,” Vosburg said.

Essentially, Proposition 13 put a permanent 1 percent cap on property tax increases, no matter how much the value of the property changes. It was a response to the epidemic of homeowners pitching “For Sale” signs in their front yards.

While lauded as a victory for taxpayers, educators despise Proposition 13 as the death knell for California’s public schools.

“What happened for schools with Prop. 13 is they became dependent on state funding, and therefore the state budget,” said Bob Finlay, the associate superintendent for Santa Cruz County. Telléz sees no other reason why California schools have fallen so far off course.

“Prop. 13 is fundamentally why our states can’t fund education consistently,” he said. Telléz explained that since sales and income taxes have become the primary source for school funding, schools have become subject to the ebbs and flows of the capitalistic economy. Repealing Proposition 13, for Telléz, is the only way to fix the broken funding system.

Vosburg thinks that would be irresponsible and impossible: “Appealing Proposition 13 would be like trying to repeal the law of gravity.”

Feeling the Effects

While politicians and interest groups wrestle over the budget in Sacramento, schools experience the tangible consequences of inadequate funding.

“This year is bad because there was no growth in spending, but costs keep going up — gas to drive school buses, food for cafeterias — costs are generally going up,” Watkins said. Both he and Finlay project even more strain during the 2009-2010 school year. “It looks very bad,” Finlay said. Watkins was more specific about his concerns regarding the 2008 budget. “This year’s budget was put together with a lot of gimmicks and no real solutions,” Watkins said. “The whole infrastructure, in my opinion, is problematic for the future. Not just the schools, but roads and health care. Everything.”

Ken Wagman shares their concern for the next school year, but he sees problems closer on the horizon.

“I’m concerned that this year there’s going to be mid-year cuts,” Wagman said. “There’s rumors going around, but California is short $5-7 billion, so if the governor proposes tax cuts, where is he going to have cuts?”

What was particularly unusual about this year, Wagman said, was that the state budget was passed after the school year had already started. This meant that schools had to figure out a tentative yearly budget, than make the necessary cuts once the legislature passed the final version on Sept. 23.

All of this bodes badly for the future of elective programs such as the arts and sports, and forbears a decline in the number of new or returning teachers. Vosburg said California teachers are the highest paid in the country, defending Proposition 13 against accusations that it has taken money away from schools.

California’s teachers do get the highest salaries in the U.S., according to a study by the Education Data Partnership (EDP), a group that tracks the performance and fiscal data of California schools.

However, the EDP’s study and educators on the ground point out that California is also the most expensive state to live in.

“In Santa Cruz County, we haven’t been able to give the salary increases to keep up with the cost of living,” Watkins said. “It leaves us in a precarious situation.”

Simon Fletcher is the assistant principal of Pacific Collegiate Elementary, a grade 7-12 charter school. He said all schools in Santa Cruz find it hard to convince new and enthusiastic teachers to teach in this county.

“There’s a lot of competition if everyone is trying to attract experienced teachers who are going to hit the ground running,” Fletcher said. “It’s really hard to get them to come here.”

Adding to the stress teachers already feel from overcrowded classrooms and salaries that rarely meet the cost of living, they face the possibility of being fired at the end of every school year in anticipation of budget cuts.

It has become a staple in many schools’ calendars: teacher are fired in the spring, then rehired in the fall to meet student demands.

“That whole process is very disruptive, demoralizing, and detrimental to trying to get a healthy educational environment and culture,” Watkins said.

Santa Cruz Schools: A+ for Effort

Santa Cruz administrators are looking to schools throughout the state to see how they’ve created successful programs and achieved high student performances with minimal funding. “These schools have strong parental involvement, high expectations, high morale, dynamic leadership, dedication, and a commitment to change,” Watkins said. “We can do miracles in these low-performance schools if we create a culture within the school and community.”

To compensate for all the shortfalls of this year’s budget, Watkins and others are looking at alternative solutions to meet the demands of Santa Cruz students. “We are looking at ways to solve these problems locally,” Watkins said. “We are partnering with civic leaders and nonprofits. It will mark us as a community in the ways we get kids educated.”

For example, Watkins said, he has been holding meetings with a group of local businessmen who want to start a nonprofit after-school sports program for schools that can’t afford one.

The support of Santa Cruz citizens is not lost on the county’s educators.

“I think the community has a huge commitment to education,” Wagman said. “We as a community will continue to step up.”

Barry Kirshcen, chair of the Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, knows sacrifices have been made by the Santa Cruz city and county school boards, but that they are doing the best they can.

“To their credit, [the Santa Cruz school boards] have done the best that they’ve been able to do to preserve programs in light of budget reductions,” he said.

“It’s really a miracle what we’ve been able to do with the limitations we have,” Finlay said.

Even if California schools don’t receive enough funding, kids will continue to go to school. And Santa Cruz’s citizens and educators are dedicated to preserving one of the most fundamental institutions in any sovereign society.

“The idea of free, accessible education is one of the cornerstones of this country,” Fletcher said. “That’s what separates us from many other parts of the world.”