SPUSD Confronts Grim Budget on Pandemic Fallout

School district officials showed resolve amidst a gloomy outlook as they discussed the likely budget implications for California’s schools at the Board of Education meeting this week.
South Pasadena Unified School District can realistically expect significant revenue reductions for the upcoming school year, in addition to likely having surprise cuts from the current year, all thanks to the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Administrators and school board members agreed that the district should start planning for cuts now to be prepared for when the bad news actually arrives and to keep the community in the loop.
“I think looking at ways to make the reductions now instead of waiting is smart,” said Dr. Michele Kipke, the school board president, at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve got to think right now about where there are ways to reduce our budget and we’ve got to start communicating this to all of our stakeholders and let them know what we are faced with.”
Superintendent Geoff Yantz explained on Tuesday that, predictably, the economic recession will largely impact governments at all levels. Both the state of California and Los Angeles County have, in a variety of decrees, mandated the closures of nonessential businesses and significantly restricted the services of vital ones, such as restaurants and grocery stores, in an effort to combat the spread of the disease.
“There’s a considerable amount of uncertainty moving forward and there is going to be what I anticipate is a series of reductions over the next several months that school districts are going to have to respond to,” Yantz added.
State officials are expected to unveil mid-year changes in May, when districts normally expect the “May revise” from Gov. Gavin Newsom ahead of when districts and the state both formally adopt the next year’s budgets.
“Which means that it’s kind of a do-over for the state,” Yantz explained. “They are going to go into the 2019-20 budget and make cuts to the revenue that we anticipated receiving this year. The reason for that is to soften the impact for next year. Once the governor comes out with his work-year budget, then in June the state will review that and approve that budget.”
Additionally, the adoption of the 2020-21 budgets will be delayed until August, largely as a result of the tax return filing date being extended to July 15 — again, as a result of the pandemic. Citing the revised UCLA Anderson Forecast, Yantz said unemployment was projected to top 6% by the end of the year and that the state was expected to weather the developing recession through at least 2022.
The state, Yantz noted, is sitting on around $18 billion in surplus revenue reserves, but it was unclear where lawmakers might plan to use those funds, if at all, to combat the economic contraction. Asked about what the district could expect in the upcoming budget, Yantz said he was told to prepare for a zero-percent or even negative cost of living adjustment and for no grants to be approved, at the very least.
“It could get more significant than that come August,” the superintendent warned.
Dr. Ruby Kalra, the school board clerk, reminded her colleagues that SPUSD remains among the lowest-funded districts in the state and that 83% of its budget goes toward personnel costs, giving the district little wiggle room in terms of accommodating revenue changes. She said she’s worried the state will continue putting education on the backburner in terms of finances.
“It really makes me sad to see children and families be put to the back of the line again, and I really hope that won’t be the case,” Kalra added.
Board member Jon Primuth echoed his colleagues and stressed the need for district leaders to continue lobbying to state lawmakers comes budget time.
“One thing that’s certain is there’s going to be far less money going toward education,” Primuth said. “I can’t under any scenario see anything less than significantly less funding coming our way. I do think in Sacramento it’s going to be difficult for education to hold its own. We’re going to need to be very vocal at the state level.”
In other business, the board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with Pasadena City College regarding a dual enrollment program, the adoption of the pilot English course “Examining Cultural Diversity and Identity” into the standard curriculum at South Pasadena High School and the implementation of certificated layoffs for the coming fiscal year.
Additionally, the board formally called a November election for two of its five at-large seats. Incumbents Primuth and Suzie Abajian both signaled their intent to seek re-election.