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Budget battle focuses on state control of local schools
By Doug Willis, Sacto Bee Associated Press Writer (Published May 31st.)

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- One of the biggest battles in the Legislature over California's new state budget is not over money, but over how much control the state should exert over local schools.

Schools get the biggest share of the state budget. This year, they received $24 billion out of a $78 billion budget. In Gov. Gray Davis' proposal for the new fiscal year beginning in July, schools would get $26.4 billion out of an $81 billion budget, or $5,990 per pupil.

The Davis budget determines how nearly every new school dollar will be spent: $144 million for textbooks, $143.7 million for maintenance, $42.5 million for conflict-resolution counselors in high schools and so on. Altogether, it contains 32 new funds as small as $500,000 for a new "Governor's Principal Leadership Academy."

Davis' proposed increase for local schools"is big, and we should be happy with that. But most all of that is being proposed for very specific programs for which we will have no control," said Kevin Gordon, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association.

"There's a pathetically small amount of discretionary dollars in that $5,990, $75 per elementary kid, $91 per high school kid," Gordon said. Legislators of both parties have been sympathetic to the pleas from Gordon and local school officials for fewer spending restrictions.

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, endorsed all of Davis' proposals. But they amended his plan to remove the restrictions on $328 million of the new funds, which would increase the discretionary funds by another $55 per pupil.

Republicans are pushing to shift another $240 million from so-called categorical to less restrictive block grants funds.

"We pass a lot of laws to hold local schools accountable. Then we tie their hands and say, 'By the way, you can only do it the way we tell you,"' said Assemblyman Robert Pacheco, R-Walnut.

"We have a great opportunity to send a message to local school boards that 'We trust you."'

By contrast, the dollar differences for schools among the Davis, Senate and Assembly budget drafts are remarkably small. The Assembly plan contains $4 million more than Davis requested, which is the equivalent of a 15-cent difference in every $1,000.

The Senate budget is $140 million higher than the Assembly, still a difference of just $5 per $1,000.

Local school officials contend that they can do a better job of achieving the Democratic governor's goals with fewer restrictions.

"In our district, we have a good ratio of counselors to students," said Superintendent Dave Gordon of the suburban Elk Grove Unified School District, questioning Davis' proposal to hire one more counselor for each California high school as a school safety measure.

"What we feel we need is a fast-response intervention team of professionals and specialists who can evaluate a situation if schools get information about strange behavior," Gordon said. "If all you can hire is counselors, that would not be helpful."

Gordon said earmarking money for safety devices such as metal detectors might be a good idea for some urban schools, but not for suburban campuses like his 44 schools south of Sacramento.

"A metal detector isn't helpful unless there's a single point of access on your campus, which is fairly rare. So the one-size-fits-all solution is not the way to go," he said.

"But most of all, it constrains the creativity and ingenuity of people who have good ideas of what to do. We need to trust our people to tell us what is needed at the school site. I can't tell at my district office, and they certainly can't in Sacramento."

Alan Bersin, superintendent of the 140,000-student San Diego Unified School District, also said fewer budget strings will get better results.

"From the perspective of the Legislature and the governor, there's the frustration of wanting to earmark money to be sure that problems are dealt with," Bersin said.

"But looking from the bottom up, when you have categorical funding, it tends to create cookie-cutter solutions to problems that have to be dealt with according to the particular circumstances of individual districts, or even from school to school within a district," he said.

But Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante said the governor believes priorities should be the same for schools throughout California and that the spending restrictions are appropriate.

"Right now, there are immediate needs in the schools, and he wants those immediate needs addressed," Bustamante said. "While school districts are not all alike, there's a tremendous amount of similarity in the needs of schools."

After hundreds of hours of hearings since Davis submitted his budget to the Legislature in January, Senate and Assembly draft budgets are now ready to be combined into the Legislature's final draft of the 1999-2000 state budget.

Those hearings begin Tuesday with a goal of enacting a new budget by June 15.

Copyright (c) The Sacramento Bee

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