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Dancing with Sacramento means doing as the state says - period
Jason Messer has served as Manteca Unified district superintendent - interim and permanent - for a little more than two years. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Jason Messer’s job requires participating in a dysfunctional dance that is known as California school financing with a heavy dose of mindboggling state-imposed rules.

The Manteca Unified superintendent doesn’t have to look too far to find an example of Sacramento run amok. Outside his third floor window of the district headquarters on East Louise Avenue that overlooks the school farm, Messer delivers a quick lesson in the complexities of California public education. An appropriate name for the course from Messer’s perspective might be The Lunacy of the State Upstaging Local Control 101.

“A lot of people probably would have preferred us to spend $6 million in the classroom instead of on the school farm,” said Messer as he looked through grease pen budget numbers and related words on the windows that double as an economical replacement for a white board to eliminate an expense.

“The state, though, tells us what money is available that we can apply for,” Messer said. “There was money for a school farm and not for the classroom.”

Messer, for the record, is a big proponent of the school farm in terms of its direct impact on vocational students in high school as well as exposing elementary students to agriculture. He nearly ended up on a course that would have taken him to the University of California at Davis to become a school Ag advisor.

But his lesson isn’t about the value of Ag education. It is about the state making districts dance to their tune.

“You see that building there?” Messer asked as he pointed to an open animal barn. “We can’t teach kids in that during school hours.”

The building - which exceeds every California building code doesn’t have the blessing of the agency that counts for schools - the Department of the State Architect. To use it as a classroom the DSA wanted the pillars for the barn placed in such a manner that it would drive the costs up substantially.

The district, which couldn’t afford to do that and still offer a complete school farm program, opted for the next best option. They went the economic route and built the livestock building as it is now.

“Students can go in there during school time to feed and care for their animals but we can’t teach them how to feed a pig in it during school hours,” Messer said. “We can do it after hours but not during school hours.”

That is just one of many reasons why Messer might believe dancing with the state is more like break dancing than a waltz.

But no matter how bizarre state regulations for school construction may seem, it is more reasonable than how the state finances schools these days.

“I’ve basically have given up trying to explain school financing to people,” Messer said.

Manteca Unified - and all other public school districts - are required to have a preliminary budget in place in June under state law.

The state which provides almost all of the funds needed to run local districts is supposed to adopt a budget by July 1. Even in those rare years where the state meets their budget deadline on time, local school districts are making educated guesses. This year’s situation with the state budget a record 87 days past due has made it worse.

Manteca which is in fairly good shape considering as it opted to make deeper cuts nearly 18 months ago than most other districts did, has been told it will receive $1.7 million in federal funds to help in the classroom in the upcoming months.

But Messer knows that isn’t going to happen.

“We fully expect the state to take the money they’re getting from the federal government and simply replace the money they are supposed to give schools under Proposition 98,” Messer said.

The state budget compromise that has been cobbled together and is still under wraps reportedly has upwards of $7 billion in federal money factored. A large chunk of that includes money that the state doesn’t even know yet whether it will be approved by Washington.

That, however, is only one aspect of the budget puzzle.

The state requires local school districts to do something that it doesn’t require of itself - adopt three-year budgets that are in balance.

“As much as you’d like to run a school district like a business you can’t do it because of the requirements the state imposes,’’ Messer said.

“Then there are issues with cash flow. The state typically requires schools to spend money and then reimburse them afterwards. In many cases, payments for salaries and such that the state has committed money for are made a numbered of months after they are spent. And even then the state often pushes the date they promised to make payments back even farther.