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Fear Tactics Dominate Budget Hearing

Katy Grimes
Calwatchdog.com news reporter

“Cuts to the California dream” are coming, California Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson warned the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee on Thursday. If an all-cuts budget is adopted by the Legislature, also coming are pink slips for teachers and school closures, he said.

“We are here because there are no options. Smoke and mirrors have been used,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, as he described the dire condition of the state’s education system.

But Republican Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar provided a different take on California’s education system and where spending increases have brought us. “Since 1970 through 2010, the number of students in California has increased by 9 percent, while school employees have increased by 98 percent,” he said. “The cost per student is up 275 percent, but test scores — there has been zero increase in test scores.”

The hearing appeared at times to be a staged exchange between Torlakson, himself a former state Senator and Assemblyman, and his fellow Democrats on the committee. Torlakson said that 19,000 teachers have already received pink slips, with more to come, and 110 school districts are facing insolvency.

“One hundred and ten school districts are insolvent. How do we deal with that?” asked Sen. Alan Lowenthall, D-Long Beach, who described it as the “magnitude of what’s down the road.”

Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson of Riverside asked Torlakson if the 19,000 pink slips were sent out “because of the possibility of an all-cuts budget.” Torlakson said they were not, and were actually a result of the $2 billion education budget shortfall this year due to declining Proposition 98 revenues.

Emmerson asked how many pink slips are sent out every year. “In three years, there have been 30,000 positions eliminated or terminated, with 50,000 pink slips,” said Torlakson. “However, a large number were rolled back this year with the federal money.”

“I do not understand why we are having a hearing about an all-cuts budget, when the Speaker [of the Assembly, John Perez] said there would be no all-cuts budget,” said Emmerson.

Surprise Steinberg Visit

Then Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg made a surprise visit to the committee. “I had a feeling that subject would come up today,” said Steinberg. He and Emmerson had a salty debate about the fear tactics being used in the committee hearing over an all-cuts budget. Emmerson objected to Steinberg’s characterization of an all-cuts budget as an option because of the budget road map presented to Gov. Jerry Brown by the GOP Five, of which Emmerson is a member.

Steinberg said that the hearing was necessary because legislators must understand what an all-cuts budget would look like. “We have to hear it from the superintendent,” meaning Torlakson, Steinberg said.

The GOP Five includes Republican Senators Tom Harman of Huntington Beach, Anthony Cannella of Ceres, Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, Tom Berryhill of Modesto and Emmerson. In March, the GOP Five met with a Gov. Brown and presented him an alternate budget plan. Brown cut off budget talks shortly thereafter.

Huff told Torlakson that during a hearing last week he asked what would happen if teachers’ pay were cut 5 percent. “We keep talking about shortening the school year, but that doesn’t help the kids. So why don’t we make some cuts to teachers?” asked Huff.

Huff said that the Legislative Analyst’s Office confirmed that 5 percent cuts in teacher pay would total approximately $2.5 billion in the budget.

“We don’t have to cut supplies,” said Huff. “Some cuts are easier than others. But we don’t have to just punish the kids.” Huff explained how private business is forced to make pay cuts to employees during a financial crisis, and was critical that nearly all money increases are going to educator salaries. “Why do we punish the kids?” Huff asked. “We need to keep teaching the kids but share the responsibility equally.”

“Teachers are not paid enough,” Torlakson said.  ”I would hope we would protect students, but also protect the profession. I hope young people continue to bring their altruism to school careers.”

School Superintendents

After Torlakson finished, a panel of school superintendents made presentations about the dire conditions in each of their districts. They included: Steven Ladd of the Elk Grove Unified School District, Mike Hanson of the Fresno Unified School District and Holly Hermansen of the Nevada County Office of Education. Each said that, even with the massive cutting they have already undertaken, they still would be operating a deficit if an all-cuts budget is adopted.

Huff asked the panel of superintendents if teachers are overpaid. Each Superintendent answered, “No.”

Huff then said that the first priority in contract negotiations always goes to teacher salaries. He added that he has been trying to suggest there are different ways to look at this subject.

Huff asked the superintendents how Brown’s $12 billion tax-extension ballot initiative would change their budgets. Hanson said it would influence the outcome of decisions. “From a fiscal point of view I’d be grateful if the Legislature would be able to put some funding in place — those dollars are critical to us,” said Hanson.

“It wouldn’t have changed the number of pink slips you sent out?” asked Huff. The superintendents said that it would not.

After Leno complimented the superintendents for appearing before the committee, he said he was reminded of a Sacramento Bee interview in which Bob Dutton, the Senate Republican leader, was asked if he was ready to make the cuts to education. “I am,” Dutton reportedly said. “I hope he reconsiders his position,” said Leno at the hearing.

Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, talked of the need to keep the funding going to the school system. Then Emmerson asked a question of Dan Troy, vice chancellor of college finance and facilities planning for California Community Collleges: How many kids have to take remedial English?  Troy replied that 80 percent or more of college students have to take remedial English.

Republican Reasons for Education Cuts

The long hearing finally wrapped up but not before Huff had a chance to sum up his position on education spending in the state, and why cuts are necessary. ”There is no direct correlation between spending and the success of students,” he said. “The purpose is to educate kids, and not just to care for educators.”

Huff’s made his position clear on his Senate website:

The Senate Budget Committee is now debating a series of budget cut actions that may have to be taken if the Governor fails to place tax extensions or tax hikes on the ballot for voters to approve. As the Vice-Chair of this committee, I’m distressed to see this committee take part in a series of “scare tactics” that are designed to do nothing more than strike fear into the hearts of ordinary citizens from one end of California to another.

This approach is designed to do one thing: convince voters to approve tax extensions at the polls. I am not happy to see the committee take this sort of action, and issued the following statement after they wrapped up work.

I’m disappointed to see Democrats resort to scaring the public by threatening to close schools, and reduce public safety in an attempt to wrestle support for $50 billion worth of unpopular tax increases and extensions.

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