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Daily Pilot

Apodaca: Now is the time to pay attention

By Patrice Apodaca

2:25 PM PDT, May 6, 2011

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The Newport-Mesa Unified School District's budget outlook is going from bad to worse, and if there's ever a time to make your voice heard, now is it.

The budget crisis in Sacramento means that even the best-case scenario for education is bleak. The district, which has already cut $25 million over the past three years, is bracing for a new round of state funding reductions, and the possibility of an even bigger decrease on the way.

That has led district officials to issue increasingly grim warnings, such as when Acting Supt. Paul Reed said at a recent school board meeting, "Those of us that do so much with so little are about to do everything with nothing."

For the moment, district leaders are preparing contingency plans based on possible outcomes of the budget battle underway in the state's capital.

At issue is the giant shortfall in state finances for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

After cutting more than $11 billion in projected spending, Gov. Brown and other Democrats want to fill most of the remaining $15-billion gap by extending or renewing four temporary tax increases, a proposal Republican lawmakers oppose.

The state's education system will be required to do with less, though how much less remains to be seen. Newport-Mesa is already facing cuts of $11.8 million to its $230-million budget. That breaks down to $570 per student taken away as the state shifts money away from districts in areas with higher property tax revenues to those where property taxes aren't enough to meet minimum per-student funding levels.

Newport-Mesa has assured staff and parents that it can temporarily balance its budget by dipping into its reserves.

But if the tax extensions that Brown advocates aren't passed, another $825 per student will have to come out of Newport-Mesa's annual budget.

Absent a huge resurgence in property taxes, the district's reserves would be drained by the end of the next school year, Reed said. After that, "we cut to the bone."

I spoke to Reed this week about the whole budget mess, and he remains impressively stoical in the face of this depressing prospect.

His one sliver of hope is that the electorate will wake up to the reality that "the state school system is about to implode."

Thus far, district cuts have been made largely in support services. But soon, he said, more drastic alternatives will be on the table. Talk is already circulating about the possibility of reducing the school year by 20 days.

I asked Reed what he thought of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where parents have launched a $1-million fundraising campaign to try to stave off cuts. He said that despite the good intentions, one-time injections of donations have little impact.

Even so, such acts of desperation might look increasingly appealing. Just this week, a state school official reported that four districts are on the brink of insolvency and in dire need of cash.

Another proposal on the table, a bill by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would allow cities, counties and school districts to seek voter approval to raise local income, sales and excise taxes to cushion themselves against some of the deep cuts in state funding.

Meanwhile, the political calculus keeps shifting. Earlier this week, state officials reported an unexpected $2-billion surge in tax receipts, a development which could bolster the cause of those who are against the tax extensions. Brown is expected to keep up his push for a mix of cuts and taxes when he releases his updated budget plan later this month.

As Reed says, there are "a thousand moving parts" to the budget dilemma. It seems the best we can hope for now is that they drive us to the least-worst outcome.

If the budget battles aren't giving you enough headaches, another thorny issue that will be up for discussion at Tuesday night's school board meeting should do the trick.

Assembly Bill 165 aims to put some extra teeth into California's promise of free public education by mandating stiff penalties for the illegal practice known as "pay to play," in which parents are coerced into shelling out money for school activities and supplies. If a district were found in violation, the state would withhold some funding until parents are reimbursed.

With the stakes raised for this common violation, the pressure would be on school officials to make clear to all coaches, teachers, activities directors and parent fundraising groups that any payments they solicit should be billed as strictly optional. All activities and supplies — whether it's participation in a sport or a book required for a class — must be offered free of charge.

While this seems straightforward enough, the devil will be in the implementation, and I'm interested in hearing how schools and parents will react if AB 165 becomes law. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, to all the moms in Newport-Mesa, I wish you a very happy, healthy and peaceful Mother's Day.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.