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Crying wolf too many times may catch up with educators May 19

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POSTED April 30, 2009 2:33 a.m.
Crying wolf one too many times could lead to an unpleasant day of reckoning come the morning after May 19 for California public schools.

No one needs to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on opinion polls to gauge the sentiment among California taxpayers. To say many have had it with the unbridled spending spree that Sacramento managed to go on in the 31 years since Proposition 13 passed is about as big as an understatement as saying mortgage lenders may have gotten a bit too lax three years ago.

Proposition 13 is always presented as the bogeyman as to why schools are underfunded. The real problem are politicians who act like state taxpayers are a herd of cash cows when appeasing every special interest constituency that comes along. The state’s problems are not as much as a revenue shortfall as a borrowing addiction. It was clear 10 years ago that the state had to rethink the way it was doing business and economize. The politicians heard the taxpayers and didn’t raise taxes but they also pandered to taxpayers at the same time by borrowing to keep programs in place so they didn’t have to risk the wrath of special interests at election time.

Proposition 13 passed because property owners were being pushed to the edge. School districts would determine that they needed to spend, count the state and federal dollars they had and then set property tax rates accordingly to cover the budget. It was never live within your means. It was tax to accommodate spending.

Passage of Proposition 13 peeled back some rather interesting things about education financing.

Then Gov. Jerry Brown – in exchange for the first infusion of extra state tax dollar help to cover the initial loss of property taxes - restricted state reimbursement for certain education programs to 100 percent of the actual cost.

It may sound unbelievable, but back in 1978 if a school district offered behind-the-wheel instruction for driver’s education they got a 125 percent reimbursement from the state. The same was true of summer school.

The carrots were built into legislation passed in a bid to encourage local districts to add such programs.

Amazingly, there were more than a few districts that actually opted not to offer either driver’s ed or summer school for several years as they could no longer “make money” on them. So much for being concerned about educating kids first.

Yes, educators cried wolf back in 1979 even though the state took steps that year to make them financially whole.

Fast forward in the 1980s. School districts – particularly the Big Seven – had lobbyists pressing Sacramento non-stop for more money. Right in the middle of one such intense lobbying campaign, the Orange County derivates debacle unfolded where hundreds of millions of invested tax dollars from various counties and cities as well as school district were lost. Well over $30 million lost in the high return, high risk investment tool belonged to school districts.

It begged the question as to why the very same districts were crying they were on the verge of being broke if they had unrestricted excess money they could gamble essentially on the roll of the dice.

Again, the schools cried wolf and the people came running.

Californians have been hammered mercilessly with statistic after statistic that point to our funding of public education to be somewhere between Bangladesh and Somalia. It’s amazing that for a state that’s on the bottom of the pile for funding education we’re No. 6 on the overall tax burden per capita survey conducted by The Tax Foundation. And, surprise surprise, the property tax burden of a typical Californian came in at 10th out of 50 states. Maybe there is something more than the amount of money that is a problem here. Maybe it is how it is squandered on state overhead and doled into special interest programs where the money can’t be used for general classroom support.

And now we are coming face-to-face with state services Armageddon on May 19. Failure to pass all six ballot measures would mean another $9.2 million cuts for Manteca Unified next year on top of the $23.5 million that already needs to be cut.

School districts are again crying wolf. This time around it is the real deal as school boards with the moxie are taking drastic steps such as closing down and consolidating schools.

Unfortunately this time around the cries for help are likely to fall on deaf ears. Cry wolf enough and people catch on. Too bad it’s always when there really is a wolf at the door.
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