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School Board Joins Deasy's Call to Arms

By Oliver Lukacs and Jorge Casuso

Dec. 22 -- A year and a half after taking the helm of a relatively small, upscale school district, Supt. John Deasy has fired off a series of proposals he hopes will forge a movement to address the local funding crisis at its root -- the top levels of state government.

School Board members enthusiastically joined in Deasy's call to arms last week, unofficially throwing their support behind his plan to call on the State to bridge a local $3.4 million midyear budget shortfall and an $11 million funding gap next school year.

The proposals - which include shutting down schools for two weeks, canceling summer school programs and boosting State taxes on cigarettes and liquor - will require an intensive lobbying effort in Sacramento, which is asking local districts to make drastic cuts in an effort to bridge a staggering $34.8 billion budget shortfall.

"We have to do what we can politically to bring the solution to the forefront," board member Julia Brownley said after Deasy publicly unveiled his proposals Thursday. Brownley, the senior board member having served eight years, thanked the superintendent for his leadership during a "catastrophic" situation.

Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez took Brownley's call one step further, saying, "We kind of need to take charge, get up with rage, and go to Sacramento to show how important education is."

Saying "in every crisis there is also opportunity," newly elected board member Oscar de la Torre, a community activist, suggested seizing the moment to create long-term reforms.

"We need to take the lead in mobilizing and educating our community," de la Torre said, "and start focusing on long term solutions."

While supporting Deasy's proposals, board vice president Jose Escarce wanted to know how much of an organized lobby existed to push for the implementation of the superintendent's state-level reforms.

Deasy admitted it was "fractional at the moment," and added that "what would be helpful is a (well-respected) district like ours to be at the forefront" of such a movement.

Deasy's dramatic proposals, though unveiled publicly in a nearly empty boardroom Thursday as midnight approached, had been weeks, if not months, in the making and were anticipated by school board members and top district and union officials, as well as the local press.

Before making his proposals public, Deasy met with State Senator Sheila Kuehl and State Assembley member Fran Pavley, who represent Santa Monica and Malibu, to line up their support. He also met with the press three days before making the proposals public.

In a carefully worded six-page memorandum to top district officials that often reads like a manifesto, Deasy placed the proposed "solutions" squarely in the hands of the State.

"The State has fully abdicated its constitutional responsibility to public education," Deasy wrote in the memorandum. "I maintain that it is our responsibility to maintain the level of service and program that our students currently experience.

"We cannot tolerate the types of programmatic and personnel cuts that these reductions will constitute. In a way we must say NO. We will simply not allow it. And short of civil disobedience, we must find a way to deliver the same result through alternative means of resolving this real State budget crisis."

Deasy then outlined a series of "solutions" - which the board will officially take up next month -- that include the following proposals, most of which would result in savings that can be returned to the State education budget as funding to offset reductions in the next year:

  • To seek "constitutional and educational codification amendments" to allow the district to shut down schools for ten days during the current school year. The furlough would spare between 70 and 100 jobs.

  • To oppose the use of reserves to fund the State's "failure" to support public schools. The reserve "should and must be kept" in a place that experiences frequent natural disasters.

  • To recommend that "all State employees and offices be closed and furloughed for two days in this fiscal year.

  • To recommend that the County Offices of Education "be dramatically downsized, and that the work be offset to local school districts as joint operating agreements for service."

  • To recommend that the State "place a moratorium on any and all new components to the State Testing and accountability program (STAR)."

  • To propose a temporary "soft-cap on class size reduction… until the State can get its financial house in order. A soft cap of 23 may be warranted."

  • To propose that "any across the board reductions in K-12 funding be equally applied to the State Office of Education and each County Office of Education. The savings would be shared at all education levels.

  • To propose "an immediate resolution to place before voters a proposition to move the passage of local school district parcel tax initiatives from two-thirds required for passage to 55 percent."

  • To propose increasing "vehicle license fees, reinstating the 9 percent and 10 percent
    personal income tax brackets and increasing the taxes on cigarettes and liquor."

  • To recommend "removing the mandates and restrictions for all textbook programs, deferring the PERS employer retiree benefit increase for next year and canceling summer school programs for 2003-04.

  • To recommend "canceling the Peer Assistant and Review and Principal Training Programs; rolling back AB2700 - supplemental STRS contributions and rolling back Workers' Compensation benefits to prior year levels."

Deasy told the board that the State's revenue structure was "fatally flawed" and added that "we can no longer do more with less. We will be doing less with less."

"In the most conservative estimate we are entering a four year cycle," Deasy said.

While Brownley agreed that "the furlough is the best choice that we have in front of us" to deal with the midyear cut, she asked, "What are we looking at if the furlough doesn't work?"

"The bottom line," Deasy said, "is we can't absorb that cut. We would be going into deficit spending," which, he added, the State has allowed as part of its "flexibility" plan.

The plan also allows transfers of money between category funds and allows schools to dip into their emergency reserves below three percent.

Harry Keiley, president of the teachers' union, disagreed with Deasy's opposition to dipping into the district reserves of roughly $3 million, saying it is there not only for natural disasters, but also for other times of emergency.

"We believe those dollars are there for emergencies," Keiley said, "and if we're considering laying off people, and we have money in the bank and don't use it, I think that's a mistake."

Keiley said the union was not ready to comment on Deasy's plan, but that Deasy's proposals and the union's recommendations, which will be made public on or before January 9, "have many similarities."

Deasy said he will be submitting specific mid-year cuts as alternatives to the furlough at the board meeting January 15. Referring to the budget cuts in general, Deasy warned that "it is going to be impossible for any one area to escape consideration."

"We seriously have to begin considering canceling summer school," Deasy told the board.

Some board members had suggestions of their own to help bridge the funding gap. De la Torre, for instance, suggested approaching the City - which currently gives the schools $3 million a year -- with a proposal "that says 50 percent of the City's budget go towards public education."

Many of the cuts could be averted if voters approve a parcel tax to fund the school system, and the board took initial steps in that direction.

It unanimously approved paying up to $18,000 for a polling firm to get a reading on the voters' willingness to approve a parcel tax. The board also voted to change the name of the Parcel Tax Committee to Save Our Schools Committee.

The committee is formulating a $144 tax on residential parcels and $675 on commercial and industrial parcels, which would generate between $7 and $8 million annually for six years. A flat $300 parcel tax on the November 2002 ballot -- which would have generated $9.6 million a year -- failed.

"The health of the system depends on the parcel tax," Deasy told the board.

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