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More than ever, time to back our schools

Jeff Ackerman
Jeff Ackerman, Publisher
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Nevada County schools chief Terry McAteer would love to have 10 minutes with Gov. Gray Davis.

“I’d tell him that he really fouled this up,” said McAteer, referring to the state’s projected $34 billion deficit and the governor’s plans to slash school funding. “I’d tell him that he let things get out of control and that he now wants to balance this budget on the backs of our kids.”

Davis has proposed chopping nearly $2 billion ($325 per student) from public schools and colleges this year. That’s roughly $10,000 for a classroom of 30.

And even then, it won’t be enough. State Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson described California’s fiscal shortfall this way: “That’s a hole so deep that even if we fired every single person on the state payroll – every park ranger, every college professor and every Highway Patrol officer – we’d still be $6 billion short.”

“Next year’s budget will be bad, and future budgets? Who knows?,” said McAteer. “We’ll be cutting to the bone now, and who knows what 2004 and 2005 will look like.”

The Davis plan would require Nevada County schools to cut an estimated $2.4 million from a $72 million budget this year. But McAteer says it’s not as easy as it sounds. Not when 80 percent of the $72 million budget is payroll. “We have employees and teachers in contracts,” he explained. “I can’t cut a teacher in mid-year, so where do you make cuts of $2.4 million in the middle of a school year?”

Programs, that’s where. Programs and by tapping into the estimated $5 million in reserves the district has saved for a rainy day.

“We’ll save reading, writing, math and sciences, but the arts will get cut. So will health, physical education, nursing and counseling,” said McAteer. “Special classes that make school so special will be slashed. What we’re going to have to see is the schools turning to parents for more help.”

That will be difficult for a society used to throwing its ills on the porch of its schools.

“The battle must begin on the home front,” said McAteer. “Nobody wants to take responsibility anymore. We (schools) are left to be the social cure.”

He was generalizing, of course. Nevada County citizens have always stepped up to support their schools. That in spite of a demographic where 82 percent of those who vote don’t have children in school. They still supported the last school bond.

That support is a big reason why our 31 schools and 13,400 students rank second only to Marin County in state testing. “We have a homogeneous community,” said McAteer. “People care about their schools. But if this community wants to maintain its schools, we must all be part of the solution, and that doesn’t just mean money.”

As the son of a former state senator – his father represented San Francisco in the Legislature and he died during a campaign for mayor of that city in the mid-1960s – McAteer understands the politics involved in crisis management. “It’s as dog-eat-dog in Sacramento as I’ve ever seen it right now,” he said. “The governor came out with mid-year budget cuts in mid-December, and here we are a month later and the Legislature still hasn’t dealt with the cuts. Every day that goes by is another day that the problem doesn’t get solved because of the bickering.”

McAteer is particularly bothered by the fact that our state prisons may come away from the budget wars unscathed. “Prisons did much better than schools,” he said.

In fact, the governor has essentially left the California Department of Corrections’ $3.9 billion budget alone. With 160,901 inmates housed among the state’s 33 prisons and 38 work camps, the Golden State is home to the largest prison system in the country.

Put in perspective, the state spends more than three times each year on inmates ($26,690 per inmate per year) than on its students ($7,000 per student per year).

That seems…well…criminal.

And that disparity probably won’t be lost on the 50 or 60 Nevada County teachers likely to get pink slips by the March 15 deadline.

“There will be a number of teachers (including aides) who will get layoff notices to protect the integrity of the district,” said McAteer, referring to the contracts requiring notification of possible layoffs.

Until then, students and parents will begin to see immediate signs of trouble. “Nevada Union has a spending freeze on right now,” said McAteer. “They can’t even buy pens.”

At the end of his 10-minute chat with the governor, McAteer (who still teaches a political science class at Bear River High) would probably give Davis a little lesson in civics.

“We need to first make some radical cuts on some of the regulatory agencies in the state and on the prisons,” he’d tell Davis. “But you can’t jeopardize the future of California.”

He said the state’s water resources agency has more employees than the state Department of Education.

“Government was intended to help create an educated work force and to keep the populace safe,” he said. “If the governor could just focus on safety and education the state would run just fine.”

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from “fine.” Nevada County schools (including our own community college, which is part of a statewide $215 million proposed cut in community college spending) will need to look to our community more than ever in the months and possibly years to come. Our schools will need mentors, volunteers, supplies, business partners and more parental involvement if we are to survive this significant threat.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears every Tuesday.


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