When students and teachers return to their schools, perhaps in late July or early August, as hinted last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom, what kind of schools will they be?

When considering the public need for social distancing, class populations might become smaller, but require more spending. The community won’t know where schools will stand on financing until Newsom gives a news conference about his revision, traditionally completed in mid-May. Even if tax revenue from last year looks prosperous for the first six months of the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, schools will have to worry about what happens when there is a shortfall in revenue because of the pandemic’s depressing effect on business when it hits the school budget cycle.

In a report published April 27, independent researcher Carrie Hahnel analyzed the state’s funding for education. Her research is part of Policy Analysis for California Education — a consortium of UC Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and USC. Hahnel said that in the eventual revenue drop, a school district might have to raise anywhere from $1,400 to $2,000 more per pupil than it has done in the past. According to this calculation, the Valley’s three unified school districts project out to ranges of $203 million to $290 million for Livermore, $196 million to $280 million for Pleasanton, and $180 million to $258 million in Dublin.

Hahnel said it would be controversial, but one way to make up for the shortfall would be to modify or totally rewrite Proposition 98, which voters approved by a 1% margin in the 1988 election. It was supposed to cordon off school funding that the governor and legislature must reserve only for the school budget.

The 2019-2020 fiscal year’s budget included $81.6 billion reserved for schools. The budget proposed this year shows $85 billion, a 4% increase. But around the Valley, school officials said that the problem runs deeper than doing anything about Prop. 98.

Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Chris Van Schaack said reform can happen without rewriting Prop. 98. Sacramento has been using Prop. 98 as a ceiling to limit its budget contribution to education, not as a floor on which to build better support, said Van Schaack.

“Ultimately, it's about priorities,” Van Schaack said. “California is a huge state with many competing interests. It's difficult for those in charge of the budget to make everybody happy.”

There should be research-based assurance that the additional funds will result in an increase in student achievement, he said. However, changing Prop. 98 could make the budget less susceptible to the demands from other interests that want more budget money for their categories, said Van Schaack.

People also should not think about the school budget as exclusively for education, said Van Schaack. Schools provide a variety of services for the community. They include social-emotional support for youths, health care, nutritional services, fields for local sports teams, meeting places for Scouts, and a place for parents seeking support from other parents.

Megan Rouse, Dublin School Board Vice President, said a basic need for school finance is to increase the base grant per pupil. The best tool to achieve reform would be leadership in Sacramento. Also, the state should pick up a bigger share of the pension funds paid to teachers and other school personnel, instead of having local school districts close the gap.

“Prop. 98 funding is supposed to be a floor not a ceiling, yet it allows folks to check a box and say, ‘We're good,’ whether or not they have thoughtfully matched the resources to the needs,” Rouse said.

Jamie Yee, Pleasanton Board Vice President, also called Prop. 98 a minimum, not a limit. She said that a new funding formula needs to be addressed.

“Operating a school district without a sustainable funding model will continue to make it difficult for schools to advance the education of our students to continue to be competitive in the workplace,” Yee said. “It will become even more increasingly difficult to attract people to the teaching profession, if employment is unstable and continues to not pay a livable Bay Area salary.”

Livermore school trustee Anne White said she would like to see more federal aid to school districts. The federal government promised to sustain 40% of the budget for special education classes (with the remainder paid by the state), but schools are nowhere near receiving that much from the federal government, said White.

Also speaking about the shortfall in federal commitments to special education, Pleasanton trustee Joan Laursen said that the federal backing has ranged from around 8% to 18%, with the school district left to fund the rest.

The looming crisis looks even worse than the Great Recession did around 2008-2009, said Laursen. In the first year of that one, the district laid off 2.5% of staff, cutting as far from the classroom as possible. In the second year, the reduction was 14%, before the economy came back.

Rouse further stated that rather than needing new laws, state leadership needed to properly fund education.

“In the long term, funding for K-12 education must be four things: sufficient, guaranteed, stable and equitable,” she said.