Close to Home: Our students deserve more

Despite being the fifth-largest economy in the world, California ranks 45th among the 50 states for the percent of taxable income that is spent on education.|

Our county’s future depends on the success of our children and how well our public schools serve them. Sonoma County school districts are doing a commendable job serving roughly 70,000 public school students with the resources they have. However, many local school districts are facing significant financial challenges now and in the years ahead that threaten to compromise the high quality of education in our county.

Sonoma County schools are not alone. Around the state, there are news stories of schools having to make difficult budget cuts. Indeed, California’s public education system is facing a funding crisis.

Why is this? Simply put, California has not prioritized funding for public schools for decades. Our state educational system used to be one of the highest-?funded in the nation, primarily supported by property taxes. Then, in 1978, Proposition 13 was passed, cutting property tax revenue and dramatically changing how education was paid for. More than 40 years later, California has yet to make up the financial deficit created by this change.

Despite being the fifth-largest economy in the world, California ranks 45th among the ?50 states for the percent of taxable income that is spent on education. Other measures of school funding are equally grim. California ranks ?41st in per-pupil funding, ?45th in pupil-teacher ratios and 48th in pupil-staff ratios.

At the same time, costs in Sonoma County are rising. These include growing special education and pension costs. Student enrollment is declining based on demographic changes in our community as well as the impacts of the 2017 fires. Declining enrollment means fewer dollars for schools.

School districts also recognize the high cost of living in our county and wish to pay their employees more in order to show them how much their hard work is valued - and enable them to remain in the communities where they work. Yet they struggle to provide the desired raises as they have to make cuts elsewhere to maintain balanced budgets. The state requires that school districts demonstrate a budget that meets minimum reserve requirements for the current year as well as the next two years.

These financial challenges come at a time when schools are being asked to do more than ever. Not only do schools educate children in the core subject areas, they also provide college and career readiness services to prepare students for a rapidly changing world; maintain programs and services to strengthen students’ social and emotional skills; ensure student safety; serve families as well as students through family resource centers, and more. In addition, local schools played a critical role in helping students heal emotionally from the 2017 firestorm.

Having served as an educator for more than 40 years, I am a firm believer in the power of public schools to address inequities and provide every student a chance at achieving the American Dream - no matter their background. But this noble mission cannot be fully realized without adequate funding.

These funding issues simply cannot be solved on a local level. Our schools are doing all they can, but now they need the state to step up and do its part to restore educational funding in California.

I urge members of the public to call their elected representatives and ask them to increase the base amount schools receive through the Local Control Funding Formula. Join me and other educational leaders, such as those with the California School Boards Association, in calling on the Legislature to raise school funding to the national average by 2020 and to the average of the top 10 states by 2025. Our schools - and our students - deserve it.

Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

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