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Back-to-school could be delayed by California budget cuts

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SACRAMENTO — The deep financial hole brought on by the coronavirus is striking home for California schools after Gov. Gavin Newsom released a dramatically revised state budget plan. And the upcoming cuts could make it harder to resume in-classroom education for 6 million schoolchildren.

“It’s asking us to do more with less,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents 120,000 education employees across California. “It makes it more difficult to get back into the classroom.”

The budget Newsom outlined Thursday forecasts overall spending just shy of $100 billion for K-12 education, including state and federal dollars, compared with $103.4 billion in the current budget year. Funding from Proposition 98, the constitutionally mandated formula that sets how much money schools get annually, is down roughly $10 billion from the current budget. Newsom said he staved off deeper cuts by tapping federal dollars, eliminating tax breaks and other methods.

Almost all students have been learning from home since mid-March, when Newsom enacted a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Districts were already scrambling for more resources for distance learning.

School leaders also expect schools to look vastly different whenever students are able to safely return to classrooms, possibly with staggered start times, smaller class sizes and different rules for recess and lunch.

Keely Bosler, Newsom's director of finance, said it was hard to say exactly what the cuts would mean in each district, as they all face different financial pictures. But she said many will be in hard positions and that cuts to schools were among the administration's bigger concerns when building the budget.

“I do think that the amount of money that was provided to offset the reductions will be a significant help," she said.

Vernon Billy, chief executive officer of the California School Boards Association, said 40% of local education agencies were considering layoffs even before the pandemic. Furloughing or laying off staff would make it harder for schools to safely respond to the virus when students return, Freitas said.

“I don’t know how you do social distancing with fewer teachers, and I don’t know how you do cleaning with fewer custodians,” he said.

Newsom is asking the federal government for billions more in assistance for education and other other programs. Without it, his budget threatens roughly $350 million in cuts to after-school education, career and technical education, adult education block grants and other existing programs. He now enters negotiations with lawmakers ahead of a June 30 deadline for adopting a budget.

He has also nixed about $1.8 billion in new programs he had proposed in January, before the pandemic struck. Among them: Grants for preschool special education and child nutrition programs and programs for teacher credentialing and development.

“Many schools that have been on the front line of serving meals to children during this crisis have exhausted their nutrition budgets and need additional support to continue operations and make critical investments,” said Kathy Saile, director of No Kid Hungry California.

Newsom said the cuts could have been deeper. He is using roughly $4 billion in federal coronavirus to help schools overcome “learning losses” during the pandemic. He is also eliminating some tax breaks for individuals and businesses to bring in another $4.5 billion for schools. He wants to spend several billion dollars the state had set aside to pay off long-term pension obligations to reduce the immediate pension burdens on school districts.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat, called the budget grim and said he'll be looking for suggestions to ease the burden on schools. He said he will ask lawmakers and school districts “to come forward and help us identify ways to reduce the possibility of layoffs.”

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