‘Unprecedented in modern history’: New state budget proposal draws concern from school administrators | TheUnion.com

‘Unprecedented in modern history’: New state budget proposal draws concern from school administrators

A student carries a surfboard that he made in the Nevada Union High School wood shop last school year in a career technical education class. Grant funding for career technical education will be smaller than previous years if the governor's revised budget passes the state Legsilature and support from the federal government does not come to pass.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

Nevada Joint Union High School District

2019-20 second interim budget

Total revenue: $36,463,492

Total expenditures: $38,795,408

Reserve for economic uncertainty: $1,172,735

Penn Valley Union Elementary School District

2019-20 second interim budget

Total revenue: $6,647,959

Total expenditures: $6,766,064

Reserve for economic uncertainty: $270,643

Grass Valley School District

2019-20 first interim budget

Total revenue: $16,611,443

Total expenditures: $16,615,177

Reserve for economic uncertainty: $486,313

The cuts run deep, stretching to every part of California’s public life.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised May 14 budget has likely struck fear in public departments across the state, but it’s a feeling that has undoubtedly begun creeping into the minds of local school administrators.

The state’s proposed budget includes a decline of $19 billion in funding for K-12 education, about 23% of what was originally proposed in 2019. There’s a 10% reduction — $6.5 billion — from the Local Control Funding Formula, and revoked grant opportunities for things like child nutrition programs as well as two programs that the Nevada Joint Union High School District has specifically prioritized: special education and career technical education.

Notably, Newsom said the cuts to education and other public departments can be offset with aid from the federal government — like the $3 trillion bill meant to support states and cities that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday with support from Democrats. However, that legislation has gotten major pushback from Senate Republicans, displaying signs it’s unlikely to pass.

Because of quickly changing developments, the financial numbers could change.

Without federal support for public institutions like schools, government officials, like those from the California Department of Finance, are growing concerned, as a report published earlier this month from the department projects sharp downturns in income, wages and salaries, proprietors’ income and property income in 2020. “The widespread economic interruption caused by the global pandemic is unprecedented in modern history,” the report states.

This news hits school districts hard, as they were already preparing themselves in February against a silent recession, where, due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession, expenditures have been rising faster than revenue. It was just four months ago that Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett McFadden perhaps presciently said: “There are storm clouds on the horizon. You want to protect the classroom.”

As school districts prepare to submit their budgets in mid-June to the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools for review before being submitted to the state, it’s exactly this sentiment that county officials are echoing today.

“Prepare yourself for cuts,” warned superintendent of schools chief business officer Darlene Waddle. She said any cuts should start furthest from the classroom — classified and maintenance staff, as well as reducing hours or not filling positions — before cutting teachers.

But making cuts, always an issue, provides a deeper problem for administrators as they prepare themselves to keep students and faculty healthy and safe during the pandemic, which requires more money.

“Yeah, we’re caught in between all of this,” said Grass Valley School District Superintendent Eric Fredrickson. “We’re trying to plan, but really it’s more of a holding pattern.”

At the moment, Fredrickson said there are more questions than answers: Will the federal government pass another stimulus bill? Will the state Legislature approve the governor’s revised budget? And what will be the health protocols for schools when the next school year begins in August?

“Superintendents,” said Fredrickson, “we’re usually planners. How do we plan for this with so many unknowns?”

McFadden agreed, noting that as the school year begins in 10 weeks, administrators still “have no clue what it’s going to look like.”


While administrators were already preparing to make financial adjustments due to the silent recession, Waddle suggested that the hard times to come are not necessarily the coming school year, but the following ones. After that time, she said, financial reserves will begin dwindling, and state and local tax collections will be lower than previous years.

For newer administrators, Waddle said this kind of unprecedented downturn can be shocking.

“We’re just trying to tell them – don’t panic,” she said, “but be very serious about this.”

McFadden understands this sentiment, noting that his district’s strong reserves — of over $1 million — give his staff time to prepare for a larger hit in the coming years. But this downturn — in comparison with what occurred a decade ago — is much worse, he said, reaching schools quicker and deeper. The biggest issue for school districts, said McFadden, is that cuts to staff will have to be made.

“The cruel irony of all this is the vast majority of our budget is people, (and) we’re facing the most significant cuts to education, ever,” he said.

Without federal support the superintendent said per pupil funding could take a hit of about $1,450. (For reference, the school district’s 2019-20 budget shows $10,362 allocated per student.)

Penn Valley Union Elementary School District has already begun analyzing its budget, and will make cuts as soon as Thursday, according to its superintendent Torie Gibson. Gibson said she’s created a budget team, including three teachers, two classified workers, both district principals, the special education director, chief business officer and herself. When it comes to cuts, she said, “We are all equal,” adding that the district is going to recommend to the board Thursday night to layoff 33 positions that will affect 20 employees. Some employees have two positions.

The saddest part of the financial hardship, said Gibson, is that the district’s budget was finally in order.

“We have worked so hard to where our budget is not deficit spending,” she said.

But like other administrators, her biggest fear lies a few years down the road with the one source of hope for those reviewing budgets: testing and contact tracing will go to school staff and students first, giving them a bit more financial and social wiggle room.

“My hope is that, yes, educators, particularly those on the ground at schools, are (given) high priority,” said McFadden.

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.

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