Sitting side by side the other day at a joint meeting of the Pleasanton City Council and school board, City Manager Nelson Fialho and School Superintendent John Casey told very different stories about how they are handling the impact of the state budget crisis and the economic downturn on their two jurisdictions.
For Casey, the situation is critical. Ever since Prop. 13 reined in rising property taxes in 1978 and resulted in the state taking over the funding obligation for California schools, local districts have been increasingly dependent on Sacramento and state finances. In recent years, as state budget deficits soared, education funding has been in peril with significant cuts made last year and again now by a governor and legislature that simply can't find the will or the money to keep adequate tax dollars flowing to the classrooms.
Casey said this year has been the worst in his 17 years as a school superintendent, with the state telling Pleasanton in the eighth month of its current budget year that it was cutting payments by $4.1 million. Now, it's likely the state will force nearly $10-million in downward adjustments for the district's proposed 2009-10 fiscal year budget, which must be balanced and approved by July 1.
Casey is hoping that voters will approve a $233-a-year, four-year parcel tax in a special election called for June 2. That would keep class sizes small at no more than 20 students in kindergarten through third grade and in freshman English and mathematics classes in high school. It would also give the district sufficient funds for counseling services at the current level, as well as to maintain reading and math support programs, technology instruction and library hours.
He's less optimistic abut voter approval of a series of $11 million in new borrowing and taxes at another special election that state has called on May 19. Polling forecasters say the only measure voters seem to favor in that election is one that would dock legislators their salaries if they are late again in passing the state's annual budget. Also uncertain is $2.1 million that only a week ago was earmarked as a one-time federal stimulus fund for special education. Casey said this week that state officials could possible to divert those funds to Sacramento for state budget relief.
Last month, the school district sent notices of possible layoff to 337 administrators, teachers and hourly employees, including some part-time. Since then, administrators and teachers have offered to "give back" two to three days of work in the coming year that could produce more than $1 million in savings. Most frustrating, though, for the school district, students and parents, is the continuing uncertainty. After the May 19 and June 2 votes, at least we'll know how much money will be available to operate Pleasanton schools in the coming fiscal year--at least until the state determines again that it can't pay its bills without taking money out of classrooms.
For his part, City Manager Fialho was more positive. Sure, sales taxes, particularly those collected on new automobile sales and at Stoneridge Shopping Center, are lower than a year ago, but property taxes and assessments are holding up. In fact, Pleasanton is only one of three cities in Alameda County to see a slight growth in assessments this year, although the county assessor's office doubts that will happen in 2010.
As Fialho explained, fiscal decisions made years ago provided a budget reserve each year to use for emergencies or "rainy days." By curbing all but essential expenditures and new hires this year, along with a reduction in the reserve allocation, this year's $100-million budget has been reduced by about 10 percent. Still, several hotels are seeking a deferment for the first time ever of the occupancy taxes due this year.
If other tax revenue falls precipitously, or the state grabs local funds to help pay its bills, times could get tough for the local government as well as the school district, although local control of tax revenue and good fiscal planning so far is paying off for Pleasanton.
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