Local Politics

Wednesday, Nov 07 2012 05:42 PM

Educators wipe their collective brow after approval of Proposition 30

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Helen Acosta teaches her communications class at Bakersfield College. Governor Jerry Brown claimed victory for Proposition 30.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Public school officials across the region are breathing a sigh of relief after the victory of Proposition 30, a ballot initiative proposed to prevent drastic cuts to education.

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget for this year assumed the measure would pass. If it hadn't, K-12 schools, community colleges and universities would have been subject to $6 billion in automatic trigger cuts in the middle of the school year.

Local schools planned for the worst, raiding reserves if they had them, putting off maintenance and repairs, purchasing the bare minimum of equipment and supplies, and putting unions on standby to renegotiate pay and benefits.

Bakersfield College Professor of Communications Helen Acosta had braced for a "worst-case scenario" budget.

"Our particular department would have been more than decimated," she said Wednesday. "It was horrible to even imagine, heinous.

"I'm calling today 'worst case averted day.'"

Proposition 30 will raise the state's sales tax by a quarter of a cent for four years starting Jan. 1, and will for seven years levy higher income taxes on those earning $250,000 or more a year.

Statewide, the measure passed with 54 percent of the vote as of Wednesday; in Kern County it was trailing, 60.3 percent to 39.7 percent.

Voters in both the state and county shot down Proposition 38, an alternative education funding initiative.

The generally fiscally conservative electorate here was deeply skeptical that the money would actually help schools, noting that the state legislature has raided funds set aside for education in the past to pay for other things.

Some accused the governor of holding students hostage to enable rampant spending that California can't afford.

"I don't see any accountability in this ballot measure, and the state's already falling short of its revenue projections so they're going to have to start shifting money around and playing its usual shell games," said Mike Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern County Taxpayers Association.

Kern High School District spokesman John Teves said he was aware of skepticism, but wanted local voters to know that this tax hike "was not a luxury tax. It was a necessity tax."

KHSD was looking at losing $17.8 million, or $517 per student.

Pummeled by years of cuts in state funding, schools had been worrying openly about still deeper cuts, and it didn't help that the election was a nail-biter.

"In the early returns it looked like it was losing, and I was sweating a little bit," said newly re-elected Bakersfield City School District board member Bill McDougle. "We're very fortunate things turned around."

The boards of BCSD and the Rosedale Union School District had passed resolutions in favor of Proposition 30. BCSD said it would have taken a $12 million hit if Proposition 30 failed, which works out to $413 per pupil. Rosedale faced a cut of more than $2 million, or about $455 a student.

But now, at least some of the crisis will be averted, although several school officials took pains to point out that all Proposition 30 did was stop or slow the bleeding.

"This doesn't raise any additional funding," said BCSD Superintendent Rob Arias. "It's just flat, but at this point, we'll take that. If they had cut any more, it would have been just too big a hill to climb without impacting students and the classroom."

Because funding levels will be flat next year as well, despite increases in the costs of such expenses as energy and educational materials, some schools anticipate they'll lose money, anyway.

To minimize the damage, education advocates organized phone banks, canvassed door-to-door and held rallies in support of the measure. It was a tight race down to the home stretch.

"I was up until about 12:30 (a.m.) watching returns come in on television, even after my husband went to sleep," said Noble Elementary School Acting Principal Ruscel Reader. "I was just elated when it passed. Elated."

Bakersfield College said it was grateful it will avoid $5.2 million in cuts this year after having tapped out its reserve funds.

"There was no safety net left," said spokeswoman Amber Chiang.

The measure paid immediate dividends in the California State University system, which announced Wednesday that it will rescind recent tuition increases of $249 per semester or $166 a quarter.

"In some respects, that makes Proposition 30 a double-edged sword," said Cal State Bakersfield President Horace Mitchell.

With those refunds, CSUB will lose $2.6 million this year, but it would have been $5 million had the measure failed, he said.

Voters correctly viewed the tax hike as an investment rather than an expense, Mitchell said. Only a highly educated workforce can help turn the state's battered economy around, he said.

William Penn Elementary School teacher Jennifer Castro-Barnes said she's weary of all the politics and anxious to focus on teaching again.

"I'm just happy to be able to keep on doing what's important," she said.

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