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State Superintendent: School Districts' Worst-Case Scenario May Get Worse

Tom Torlakson visits Orange County for a meet-and-greet and offers up an assessment of the state's current fiscal crisis.

The worst-case budget scenario for public schools may be far worse than Orange County officials imagined, the state’s top educator said Tuesday.

Newly elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson held a meet-and-greet social hour with leaders from the Orange County education community Tuesday in Santa Ana. Despite the state’s severe financial crisis, he put a hopeful spin on current events, with an eye toward positive changes in the future.

Torklakson told Patch, however, that while school districts have been preparing for a worst-case scenario that sees their revenue-per-student drop by $349, the actual hit may be more likely in the $500-$600 range.

School districts are basing their worst-case scenarios on an estimated $2-billion loss statewide for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. “It looks like that loss could be $4-4.5 billion,” Torlakson said. “I’m just going to have to wait until the May revision” when Gov. Jerry Brown releases a refined budget.

When Brown presented his proposed budget in January, it included a June special-election ballot measure that would have extended temporary increases on sales, income and motor taxes. Brown, however, was  and is now considering bypassing the Legislature and having an initiative on the November ballot.

School boards, however, must pass their budgets by June 30. The California Teachers Association is now campaigning for legislators to include the tax extensions in the budget without a vote of the people, something that Brown said he would not do.

The teachers union is planning a week of advocacy for May 9-13, in what organizers call a “State of Emergency.” It will conclude with a sit-in at the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, school districts are planning for the coming financial tsunami differently. is considering , is considering , while the continues to .

Torlakson said the state Department of Education processed numerous requests from school districts last year to increase class sizes beyond what the law allows. He expects many more this year.

State law allows schools to average up to 31 students in kindergarten, 30 students in first through third grades and no more than 30 in grades four through eight,  or the average number of students in a district’s class in 1964. There are no state limits on high school teacher-to-student ratios.

School districts must ask for a waiver from the state Department of Education to exceed the state limits or else face penalties.

Although it is the state Board of Education that will ultimately decide how large class sizes get, Torlakson said his staff will make recommendations. While he can foresee districts that want to raise class size by a student or two getting approval, large increases, such as growing class size by eight students, are not likely to fly.

“When you start getting over 30 [students in a class], you really diminish the quality of the education,” Torlakson said.

In addressing the approximately 60 Orange County educators who traveled to the Rancho Santiago Community College District’s headquarters to meet the new superintendent, Torlakson acknowledged that public education has some “tough times” ahead of it.

“Obviously we’re in a crisis. Earlier in the year, I declared a state of fiscal emergency,” he said. “It’s been a rugged three years, with one-third of the funding for K-12 [eliminated].”

At the same time, Torlakson has seen some creativity. Some school districts are coming together to save money by consolidating administrative functions, such as employee payroll or bus maintenance. He encourages more of that.

“I’m also seeing incredible, creative things happening. Districts are looking at how to save money and stretch every dollar. That’s overdue in some respects,” he said, adding that he wants to offer incentives for districts to become more energy-efficient “by going off the grid” and using solar power. He estimates districts could save 20 percent to 30 percent in energy costs by going green.

Many of the questions for Torlakson had less to do with the immediate budget crisis and more to do with his long-term vision for education in the state. Among the topics he touched on:

  • Improved technology that leaves “no child left offline.”
  • Increasing literacy of English learners by targeting families when the children are still toddlers.
  • A proposed special recognition for all students who graduate high school biliterate.
  • Better publicity about what’s going well in schools.
  • Changing state-mandated testing so it is more diagnostic.
  • A proposal to drop second-graders from the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR). 

After the gathering, which included catering by the Rancho Santiago Community College's culinary art students, Delia Cruz, district-level bilingual community liaison for the Capistrano Unified School District said she felt encouraged.

“Everything was wonderful. The answers were really interesting. I feel hopeful. There was a good energy that I received from him,” Cruz said.

Kathleen Heard, a librarian in the Anaheim City School District, said she is still concerned school librarians are headed for extinction. “I always hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We need a vision. We need someone who says, ‘I remember what education is, and this is not it.’ ”

Michael Stone, a member of the board of directors for the CTA and a math teacher on leave from , was pleased with the event.

“We need to put a spotlight on the pain we’re experiencing in the field of education,” he said.

Capo mom April 22, 2011 at 03:19 AM
Torlakson's campaign was funded by unions. Torlakson is a former union member so that is his comfort zone. Besides Torlakson, as a former teacher, has a teacher's pension. What solutions will come from his office? More of what brought us here..
shelly April 25, 2011 at 11:10 PM
Capo mom, All the solutions may not come from his office. Especially locally. CUSD is made up of parents, students, teachers, administrators, staff, taxpayers, etc. We should all be trying to find a solution together. What are your solutions to the budget crisis? What do you suggest in order to keep the quality of education high while the revunue coming in decreases. Who do you suggest to be more informed on the issues of education than a teacher or administrator? Please let me know who is more informed? A lawyer, a doctor, a mail carrier? Who? A politician who spouts anti union slogans fed to him or her by big businesses who are buying air time and people's opinions? Who? People who buy into the message that teachers are causing the economic crisis rather than the real culpirt of big companies that do not pay taxes and receive huge government subsidies? Is this who you want in charge? What are your suggestions to improve the budget situation and improve education for all? Who do you suggest should be in charge of public instruction?
met00 April 25, 2011 at 11:23 PM
Good questions all. May I suggest rethinking what school is. It would require that parents be re-educated, that teachers be re-educated and that administrators be re-educated. In Los Alamitos we have one elementary school that is year round. It is a choice school. I would suggest that every district create one elementary school that is a choice school (not limited by boundaries) and use that school as a platform for working on new educational paradigms. Parents who want can choose to enroll their children in that school and take advantage of the opportunities that being in a non-traditional educational environment offer. Weaver in Los Alamitos, besides being either the #1 or #2 public elementary school in OC each year, has been the testing platform for MIND, CGI and a number of other new programs that after showing success were adopted throughout the district and the county. If every district were to be doing this, imagine the advancements that would be able to be shared across the county.
Shripathi Kamath April 26, 2011 at 02:38 AM
OK met00, I did rethink what school was. How do we go about re-educating administrators and teachers when that is going to cost more in the short term (at least), and will make more demands on the budget that we are unable to meet as it is?
Dan Krolczyk June 07, 2011 at 02:55 AM
Wow great thread and great parent feedback.

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