Flexibility: The Silver Lining In Budget Cuts

Superintendent Dick Bray enjoys the increased local control | Photo by Madeleine ScintoWhile the state prepares for another year of massive budget cuts, the Tustin Unified School District in Orange County has gained the ability to spend more of its money the way it wants.

Before the state fiscal crisis, Sacramento legislators littered the funding stream with earmarks dictating where certain pots of money could be spent. Now Tustin benefits from a legislative decision to loosen categorical requirements that typically mandate about 30 percent of its budget. Through the 2014-15 academic year about 5 percent of funding, which used to be tied up in special programs delegated from Sacramento, will now be spent based on local decision making.

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"We know what our needs are, we know what good programs are, and we know what needs to be done," said Tustin superintendent Dick Bray, in response to the increased local control.

But many legislators ignore these kinds of pleas for a couple different reasons.

Sometimes they want to set aside money for certain groups with special needs, like students with disabilities, said Jim Mayer, executive director of the bipartisan policy Institute California Forward. Other times legislators are responding to public outcry on a particular issue.

"Lawmakers pass a [categorical program] and can say, 'look, we've solved the problem," said Mayer

Special interests are another reason why these programs get through the legislature.

"Strong advocacy groups don't want to campaign 1,000 school boards for resources," said Mayer. "Instead their concerns get met in a one stop shop in Sacramento."

The problem with such a centralized funding system is priorities get locked in without considering each district's needs and resources, he said.

In Tustin, an average district in terms of size and demographics, local officials are left with about 10 percent of the budget to use at their discretion after fixed costs like salaries, benefits, insurance and legal fees have been paid.

In light of the state budget cuts, however, Tustin gained the ability to either eliminate or severely cut state categorical programs to deal with the $30 million slash to its general fund.

"We couldn't have done it without the flexibility," said Anthony Soria, Tustin Unified's chief financial officer, who has been in the school business over 20 years.

Tustin, like most California school districts according to a Legislative Analyst study, refocused the categorical money on keeping class sizes at a manageable level. In turn it had to severely cut back on things like adult education, which now operates as a credit recovery program on half the funding, and summer school, which has been completely eliminated at the elementary and middle school levels.

Advocacy groups like the California Teachers Association (CTA) that fought for many of these categorical programs understand districts need flexibility in light of the budget crisis.

"It's just one of those things, it has to take place," said CTA spokesperson Sandra Jackson.

When asked about some of the criticism the programs face, she said they all should be evaluated for usefulness and duplication as there are a lot of them.

Madeleine Scinto is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She has been reporting on the intersection of money and politics for a fellowship in the News21 program.

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