Branciforte Middle School Principal Casey O’Brien at his school.
Branciforte Middle School Principal Casey O’Brien is among educators worried about the effect of Prop 15’s defeat on his school — and others.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Prop 15’s demise puts Santa Cruz County educators on edge over schools’ financial health

Educators at Branciforte Middle School wage daily battles against the unknown.

They don’t know if the students behind the black squares in Zoom class are engaged or tuned out. They don’t know when it will be safe for the students to return to their classrooms. Once they do return, they don’t know if further COVID-19 outbreaks will send them packing.

And now, with the statewide failure of Proposition 15 in the November election, Branciforte Middle School Principal Casey O’Brien has something else to worry about — the financial health of his school. “We didn’t get quite the big hit that we thought we might when COVID first hit,” he said on a recent afternoon, between visits to virtual classrooms, “but I’m pretty sure that it’s coming really soon, and it’s going to be super painful.”

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Budgets are set this school year for Santa Cruz County schools, but administrators, teachers and their union representatives, once hopeful for a longer-term solution to their budget woes, are looking toward an uncertain fiscal future. For them, the demise of Prop 15 has illuminated the precariousness of a school funding system that’s too reliant on the wax and wane of state revenue.

What might have been

Had it passed, Prop 15 would have hiked taxes on commercial properties worth more than $3 million, generating $6.5 to $11.5 billion annually for local governments and schools. Estimates assembled by School Services of California, a Sacramento-based education consultancy firm, and reported by the education website EdSource, suggest that Santa Cruz County’s largest district, Pajaro Valley Unified School District, would have landed between $7 and $13 million annually by 2025. To see how your district might have fared, click here.

In recent years, a robust economic recovery had boosted the tax revenues that typically support education, and state spending was returning to the levels it had achieved ahead of the Great Recession. Santa Cruz reached that level of funding for the first time since the financial meltdown in 2019, according to County Superintendent Dr. Faris Sabbah.

Then came the pandemic, an economic downturn, and a series of holes in the state’s projected budget. In July, Governor Gavin Newsom and the Legislature avoided cuts to the K-12 system by deferring their payments to schools, asking districts instead to borrow money against future increases to revenue. Additionally, more than $5 billion in state and federal funding meant to help California schools pay for pandemic-related costs was infused into districts through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

But a vast majority of CARES Act funding — of which Santa Cruz County schools have received $33.5 million in 2020 — is set to expire in December, with the possibility of an additional federal funding package uncertain. Experts say deferrals, essentially I.O.U.s from the state to school districts, are an unlikely solution for a second year.

In a pickle

“We’re in a pickle,” said Casey Carlson, president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers and a fierce advocate for Prop 15. “We have less to do more.”

Proponents of Prop 15, which bridged voices from two sometimes-feuding groups — teachers’ unions and school districts — viewed the measure as a more permanent solution to the state’s piecemeal budget solutions.

“Our funding is volatile and dependent on the economy,” said Kris Munro, Superintendent of Santa Cruz City Schools.

Over time, inadequate state education spending has forced school districts to turn to the community to support critical programs, like libraries, art programs and counseling. “We were really hopeful that Prop 15 would be passed to help remedy some of that,” Munro said.

Public schools throughout Santa Cruz County had been discussing a return to the classroom through hybrid learning in...

Fifty-eight percent of voters in Santa Cruz voted in favor of the measure, which lost by a narrow margin statewide. “I think if we were in a roaring economy at the time it was voted on, it would have stood an excellent chance to pass,” said John Laird, a longtime public official and former chair of the assembly’s budget committee who was just elected as State Senator for District 17, which includes Santa Cruz County.

Meanwhile, the pandemic, as well as recent wildfires, have raised the costs of student learning. Munro said her district has spent “an incredible amount of money” on technology to support distance-learning. In recent months, she’s directed additional funds to prepare for in-person learning. City schools are upgrading ventilation systems, installing plexiglass and social-distance markers, and purchasing PPE (personal protective equipment) and infrared thermometers for every classroom.

Santa Cruz High School
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With increased expenses, and the likelihood of slashed state budgets, Munro said pay cuts and layoffs are expected for next school year, though mid-year cuts are not expected. Notifications must be sent out to employees by March 15. “We anticipate that there will be reductions as a result of the recession,” she said, adding that districts won’t have an accurate picture until January, when the governor puts out his preliminary budget.

‘Not a good model’

Carlson, who heads the union for teachers in Santa Cruz City Schools, said the failure of Prop 15 strips bare the state’s flawed mechanisms for school funding, wherein districts rely completely on state budgets and outdated property tax values. “It’s not a good model for funding public schools, but that’s what California has right now,” Carlson said.

Back at Branciforte Middle School, O’Brien fears the loss of funding during a period of time he categorizes as the most stressful and overwhelming of his 20-year career in school administration.

As Covid-19 cases skyrocket locally and statewide, he’s distraught by the idea that students trying to learn from home are falling through the cracks, and that teachers and school staff, who he calls “hard-working” and “resilient” student advocates, may lose work or take pay cuts next school year.

Bilingual educators, school counselors, and maintenance staff are critical to the operation, he said. “We could use more as it is now, but if we have to go with less, it’s going to have a direct impact on student learning.”