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Prop. 30: OC schools struggle amid anti-tax fervor

Public school educators from north Orange County protest to preserve education funding in front of the Fullerton offices of Republican state Assemblyman Chris Norby. Orange County, home to a strong anti-tax contingent, will also have its schools face millions in cuts should Prop. 30 not pass Tuesday.
Public school educators from north Orange County protest to preserve education funding in front of the Fullerton offices of Republican state Assemblyman Chris Norby. Orange County, home to a strong anti-tax contingent, will also have its schools face millions in cuts should Prop. 30 not pass Tuesday.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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During the last few months, California school districts have scrambled to prepare budgets and contingency plans for Prop. 30 — in some cases, walking a tightrope between advocacy and education.

But school officials in Orange County have been trying to balance the case for their survival with the fact that their conservative constituents are often ideologically opposed to tax hikes that would stave off more cuts.

This difficult balance is evident at the Capistrano Unified School District, the county's second-largest school district. The district, known locally as "Capo Unified," is located in relatively affluent, majority white, mostly Republican south Orange County. Its student population is 61 percent white and less than 25 percent Hispanic.

The district's students have already lost a week of instruction this year and stand to lose two more weeks if Prop. 30 does not pass. But Capo Unified admnistrators don't talk about that.

At least, not comfortably or openly.

"The superintendent's not going to talk about it, just because of where we're located," said Capistrano Unified School District spokesman Marcus Walton. Walton said no district employee will speak about Prop. 30, especially to news reporters, because it could be perceived as advocating for the measure.

"We're not talking about the propositions in any shape, form or matter at this time...If I were in another district, I would be more able to, or another county, I'd be able to talk about it," Walton said. The school district's board has not taken a position on Prop. 30, Walton said.

As districts across the state drew up budget plans presuming Prop. 30 would pass and created contingencies in case it didn't, Capistrano Unified did the same.

Since 2007-08, Capistrano Unified has cut $150 million from its budget with layoffs, pay cuts, furlough days, and bigger classes. To offset a $30 million budget hole in its $330 million budget this school year, Capistrano Unified cut a week of instruction. If Prop. 30 doesn't pass, that budget hole grows to $51 million.

The district has already negotiated concessions with employees that include two fewer weeks of instruction in that "worst case scenario," according to Walton. The unions for teachers and other district employees have agreed to pays cuts and reduced health benefits, Walton said.

But these contingency plans hinge on whether Prop. 30 passes. And that's a problem for Dawn Urbanek, an active parent advocate who has a daughter attending school in Capo Unified. She's filed a complaint with the Orange County District Attorney and the California Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that the district has broken the law and is advocating for Prop. 30. State law prohibits the use of public resources for campaign activities. (The commission said it is reviewing her complaint.)

"It’s very dishonest what all the school districts are doing," Urbanek said. "I think it’s very disingenuous."

Urbanek said she is a strong supporter of public education, but feels the state's priorities are out of whack. She said she won't support Prop. 30 because she doubts the money will make it to the classroom. 

"The kids have nothing left, no days of school left, the instructional minutes are gone, our programs are cut to the bone, we’ve deferred maintenance for five years now," Urbanek said. "There is absolutely nothing left."

Though Urbanek has a daughter in Las Palmas Elementary and knows that school will be subjected to trigger cuts if Prop. 30 fails. Still, she plans to vote against it.

"If you want to help schools, then you'll allow the trigger cuts to happen," Urbanek said. "...I want the system to break enough that we can go and restructure everything. We need to restructure how schools are done. And kicking the can, year after year, and hoping we’re going to have a big revenue increase is not working."

Does that mean she's willing to have her daughter experience that breakdown?

"Yes, I am," Urbanek said. "Well you know what, my daughter won’t, because I can afford to put her in private school."

Urbanek's viewpoint isn't extreme in Orange County. Some of the most respected educators in the county have felt conflicted on Prop. 30.

Plight of schools

Bill Habermehl is the recently retired Orange County superintendent of schools and has been an educator for 46 years. He said the county has been "tremendously impacted" by recent cuts.

"When you say you've got to cut the fat, there is no fat. We’re just down to scraping bare bones at this point in time,” Habermehl said. “We’re asking teachers to do more with less — in some high school classrooms now they’ve got over 40 children in an Algebra I class."

He said the district has had to cut many programs and positions that serve students. 

"You might get away for a few years being able to eliminate those programs and you don’t see a dropoff in test scores, and that's what you see in Orange County," he said. "Our test scores have continued to inch up, not dramatically, but we've kept the trend line moving up a little bit. But that hasn't said that there's a price you pay for that. You can only go so long before you pay a price."

Habermehl wouldn't say how he would vote on Propositions 30 and 38 (the school funding measure backed by education reform advocate Molly Munger), but he wrote in a text message Friday night: "Neither are the RIGHT answer for education."

In a recent interview, Habermehl said the state Legislature needs to make its policies more business friendly so that there is more revenue for schools; he also favors returning control of public education funds from the state back to the counties.

Orange County schools have lost $1 billion in state funds in the last four years, according to Wendy Benkert, assistant superintendent of business services for the Orange County Department of Education. The county's schools cut about $300 million this year, and would lose an additional $217 million if Prop. 30 is voted down, Benkert said.

The funding losses have translated into furlough days, pay reductions, fewer health benefits, more layoffs, more program cuts, and more spending from reserve budgets, Benkert said.

“Our children have suffered immensely with the loss of art programs, music programs. We’ve cut back on science programs," Habermehl said. "You know science isn’t even taught in many of our schools, it’s just a half hour a week or maybe an hour a week where we touch on it."

A battle between mind and heart

Making a decision on Prop. 30 was "the hardest question in the world, because it's a mind-heart situation," Habermehl said. "...It’s a Band-Aid where you need a tourniquet. We need a real change in direction for the children of Orange County."

Habermehl said the revenue from the Prop. 30's tax increases wouldn't come in right away because they depend on people buying things under the increased sales tax and filing income tax returns.

"So we’re not going to dig ourselves out of this hole very quickly and I think people need to realize that," Habermehl said. He said he feels like Prop. 30 has echoes of the campaign for the state lottery.

"Way back, when we sold the lottery to California, we had pictures of kids and computers. Boy, it looked like if you passed the lottery every school district was going to be just fine and that was going to solve all our problems," he said.

"I still have people ask me, 'Bill, I thought the lottery was going to take care of that.' We get about 2% of our money from the lottery and it’s only a couple hundred dollars per child per year. Enough to buy two or three textbooks, and that's it. So we've got to be careful that this ballyhoo that’s going on to try and get the voters to run out and support public education, that it doesn’t come back and backfire on us when they see next year school districts are still going to be cutting."

Habermehl also worried that the money, although slated for education, would not actually reach schools. “Often what they do is give it to you with one hand and take it away with another," he said. "It's a shell game with the money that goes to students. That's what I'm concerned about.”

Habermehl said instead of cutting instruction, schools should be adding a month of classes to make students more competitive with those in other countries. But he's willing to gamble on trigger cuts and reduced instruction despite two grandkids in the Orange County school system.

"Public education is a stepchild to the budget. We use it and abuse it all the time, and we’ve got to stop letting the big unions and the prison guards and other people get their pay increases and everything else, and take it out on the backs of children," said Habermehl.

"If we let this thing go through then what we’re going to do is feel like we’ve fixed public education and we haven’t," he said. "If it doesn't go through we're going to be in a crisis mode and that may be the reality check that is necessary, that will get us to sit down and say, 'Is public education in California going to be a No. 1 priority?'"

Planning for the worst

If Prop. 30 does not pass, Orange County schools would see a loss of about $440 per student per day. With Prop. 30’s passage in the air, schools have come up with contingency plans and have tried to hold off on solidifying their budgets.

"Not all districts have settled salaries for the current year some of them have and have really specific plans...Other districts are planning to get together starting the day after the election to see how they’re going to move forward," Benkert said. 

Brea Olinda Unified School District already has 10 furlough days in place. If Prop. 30 fails, the district would add 15 furlough days — that would effectively total a month cut from the school calendar, Benkert said.

Anaheim City School District has eight furlough days currently but will have to negotiate with its unions after the election to determine what happens next, Benkert said.

"The difficult thing with Proposition 30 is it has a stick but not a carrot in the fact that if Proposition 30 fails, we’re cut by this $217 million, but if it passes there’s no new money," Benkert said. "...It’s not like if it passes there’s a lot of new funding and the situation for schools will be resolved. We’re still not going to be funded at the same level we were funded at in 2007-08. The situation is we won’t get the cuts, but our funding will not be restored."

Support influenced by demographics

School officials say diversity can impact whether school boards take stances in support of Prop. 30.

"We’re definitely sensitive to the demographic. The overwhelming demographic," said Jordan Brandman, one of five members on the Anaheim Union High School District’s Board of Trustees. The district is more than 70% Hispanic, with a sizeable Asian student population, Brandman said.

"And it’s not based on race, it’s based on socioeconomics," Brandman said.
We are very working family oriented in our district, and we’re definitely mindful [that] keeping the school doors open means the parents of our students can go to work knowing their students are in school."

The district’s primarily conservative Board of Trustees came out unanimously in favor of Prop. 30. 

"We all felt...that Proposition 30 needs to pass in order for us to keep our budget whole and for us to guarantee that we’re going to be able to continue to educate our students in the high quality manner and keep academic achievement improving," Brandman said.

Since 2007-08, Anaheim Union has seen more than $30 million in cuts; it now has a budget just over $300 million, Brandman said.

If Prop. 30 does not pass, the district will have to make an additional $22 million in cuts and would see a total of two weeks of furlough days, Brandman said. The cuts would likely require dozens of teacher and staff layoffs as well as subsequent increases in class sizes, he said. The district has eliminated more than 500 positions since 2008, Brandman said.

Brandman recognized the difficulty of gaining support for tax measures in Orange County.

"Taxes are very unpopular in Orange County," Brandman said. "Many of the anti-tax movement's propositions in the last 50 years have come out of Orange County. That's just a fact."

Santa Ana Unified School District is the largest school district in Orange County. It also has a student population that's more than 95% Hispanic.

The Santa Ana Unified school board came out in support of Prop. 30, said deputy superintendent Michael P. Bishop Sr. But the district has been careful about blurring the line between advocacy and information; unlike districts in Los Angeles, it hasn't held any informational sessions.

"There's only a handful of districts in Orange County that will have demographics that are concentrated in the minorities, and we happen to be one of them, "said Bishop. "We are minority majority, overwhelmingly to the tune of probably at least 99%."

Santa Ana Unified has lost about $260 million in state funding since 2007-08, primarily through layoffs and increasing class sizes, said Bishop. Since 2009-10 the district has had to increase its class sizes from an average of 20.5 students per classroom to 30 this year, he said.

If Prop. 30 doesn't pass,  Santa Ana Unified would lose about $26 million in state funding out of its $440 million budget, Bishop said. That money would come out of a $70 million reserve that the district has been spending down over time.

The district also has a $15 million operating deficit that would push the total loss to the high $40 million or even $50 million range the following year, Bishop said.

"So this year we can manage the failure of Prop. 30," Bishop said. "It will significantly have an impact on Santa Ana Unified in fiscal 2013-14. We will not only have to deal with the cut this year, but that’s...a reduction we have to deal with next year and every year thereafter. "

Bishop said the district doesn't have a solution for next year, like many districts in the county, beyond re-engaging its unions for more concessions. But unlike other districts, Santa Ana has not instituted any furlough days.

"For us furlough days are the absolute, positive, last resort," Bishop said. "...We have a student body that needs more than 180 days to begin with, less than 180 is just not going to do it." 

Opposition by business community

Although some fiscal conservatives have come out in support of Prop. 30, Orange County’s business community has not.

"Additional funding needs to be married to education reforms and efficiencies. Unfortunately, we don't see that in this proposal," said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council. The council's board has taken a no position on Propositions 30 and 38.

"The business community strongly believes that a look at the system, clear systemic changes need to be made," Dunn said. "Otherwise...after this ballot measure runs out, we'll be back in the same place we are today."

Dunn said it's important to keep things in perspective. It's not only education that's suffering, she says — "infrastructure alone is $300 billion short for the next 10 years, the court system needs half a billion dollars, in home supportive services need billions of dollars. There are major systemic changes that need to take place in Sacramento. It isn't just education, but education is hugely important to the people of California."

Dunn said businesses have donated generously to schools to try and backfill state funding cuts because they care about the future workers of the state. But they feel like they haven't seen the results, Dunn said.

"The biggest issue that business can’t yet get its hands around, its mind wrapped around, is how more funding will increase performance when half the state’s budget isn't doing it now," Dunn said.

She said it's important to get rid of a system of spending where "we might have caviar for special needs kids while everybody else gets bread and water."

Dunn said she's been told by legislators that they'll work hard to avert trigger cuts if Prop. 30 fails.

"It's not over, whether Prop. 30 passes or 38 passes, it’s not over if it does fail," Dunn said. "I mean, we’re right here, ready to stand, to work for education. And if there is another proposal, that includes performance metrics, includes reform, we would be right there in support. You know, it’s not like the world collapses in one day. This is way too important, way too important to the business community."

Because there are so many mixed messages, Bishop said many people are torn about how to vote on Prop. 30 this Tuesday. And unless people are used to dealing with school finance — they might be confused.

"And the stakes are great, greatest for those who are unfamiliar with the circumstances," Bishop said. "That’s the unfortunate nature of most of these things. The people that will benefit the greatest are the ones that are not engaged or don’t understand."

Read more: Prop. 30 fact check: Will higher taxes push businesses to leave California?

Prop. 30 fact check: We'll never know where the money actually goes

Prop. 30 fact check: California's budget has grown, so how are we broke?

Prop. 30 fact check: Schools are a mess, so why should we pay more?

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).