With budget negotiations in Sacramento in tatters, the bloodletting is starting to come into focus.
The state is facing the threat of a damaged credit rating and even more cuts to the poor, disabled and elderly. And now California schools are also grappling with a nightmare scenario: $1,000-per-student cuts, 30 days shaved off the school year and school districts falling into bankruptcy.
On Wednesday, the budget crisis of 2011 entered Phase Two.
Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers have said all along that they would have little option but to slash education spending if voters didn't extend sales, income and auto taxes in a June election. K-12 education had been protected in the $8.2 billion in cuts -- mostly affecting the state's most vulnerable populations -- signed by Brown last week.
But now that the governor's talks with Republicans about putting those tax extensions on the June ballot have broken down, the anxiety level among educators is off the charts.
Schools that have accepted larger class sizes, no art or music programs, and teacher furloughs and layoffs are now bracing for cuts so draconian that many educators have avoided thinking about them.
"There's so little left to cut," said Charles Weis, superintendent of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. "It's like saying which of your children would you kill, that you don't love that much. Every one of us thought the state wouldn't let this happen to our children."
Brown is still considering a fall initiative campaign to put the taxes on the ballot, a move that would bypass the Legislature. But delaying the budget several months could not only damage the state's credit rating but also create a statewide stoppage of public works projects and force the state to take drastic action such as issuing IOUs to keep the government afloat. So the administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature might be forced to make more than $13.5 billion in cuts before the November vote to close the $26.6 billion budget gap.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says the next round of cuts would primarily hurt K-12 and higher education, health and social services, public safety and transportation programs. State employees would also face deep salary and benefit cuts, the office says.
Brown has not laid out the course he intends to take, but his political adviser, Steven Glazer, said Wednesday: "We need legislators and voters to understand the choices and consequences in balancing the budget."
Local educators said Wednesday that they "get it," but they beseeched the governor and legislators to compromise.
"I remain hopeful the Legislature will begin to believe they owe it to the public to allow our citizens to vote," said Superintendent Polly Bove of the Fremont Union High School District.
Based on Brown's January budget, schools already had a minimal-cut Plan A -- fueled by the hope of a successful tax extension -- and then a Plan B to cope with $2 billion in education cuts statewide, or $350 per student, although the Legislative Analyst's Office says the cuts would be much worse.
Typically, districts in Santa Clara County receive a basic state allotment of about $5,000 to $6,050 per student. As officials return to their ledgers to draw up another plan that looks at possibly $6 billion annually less for education -- or $1,000 less per student -- not everyone can grasp the reality.
San Jose Unified School District's Plan B budget already meant seeking for a second year a week of unpaid furlough for employees as well as drawing as much as $15.4 million from reserves, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said.
Beyond that, he said, "we'll be looking at further cuts and future cuts."
The district is fortunate because it maintains a healthy rainy-day fund, the result of a successful lawsuit against the state a few years ago.
Many other districts, such as East Side Union High, have fewer options. By law, districts can't lay off any credentialed employees other than those -- about two dozen in East Side's case -- already notified this month. And its classrooms physically can't accommodate more students. "Upping class sizes is really not realistic," Superintendent Dan Moser said.
So the district will look at jobs outside the classroom, such as counselors, aides and maintenance workers. But after three years of cuts, "the list gets pretty slim," Moser said. Another option is to negotiate salary reductions.
While some still hope for a last-minute political deal, Brown made it clear Tuesday that he has given up on persuading any GOP lawmakers to change their minds about allowing a tax vote.
School advocates from four counties have energetically and unsuccessfully lobbied state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, one of the "GOP 5" who negotiated with Brown, to do just that.
"It's highly frustrating," said Cynthia Hawthorne, board president of Santa Cruz City Schools. She said people were in shock Wednesday at the collapse of the talks.
Parent activist Hoi-Yung Poon vowed to continue lobbying Republican legislators. "It's not up to them to determine whether to raise taxes. It's up to me, the people," said Poon, of Cupertino-based Parents for Great Education.
The schools, Weis and other educators said, simply do not have the tools to deal with the magnitude of the needed cuts.
To reduce salaries or the work year, school officials say, each of the state's 1,000 school districts would have to renegotiate union contracts. The state would have to further modify its mandated school year, already down to 175 days this year from 180 days. One estimate, Weis said, would mean cutting about 30 days of school.
"These kinds of cuts are beyond the scope of anything we've had to do before," Weis said.
Educators acknowledge that they may have contributed to public complacency by issuing annual cries of budgetary distress -- and then absorbing budget cuts and managing to keep up test scores. Plus, they said, Californians may simply be jaded by the politics of Sacramento.
"We thought at some point somebody would wake up and realize we're talking about people's lives and the future of the state, and they better get on board and be statesmanlike," Weis said. "This time it didn't happen."
Bay Area News Group staff writer Steven Harmon contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775.
Total the state may have to trim to close its budget shortfall
A POTENTIAL TRIM
Possible total loss in funding for K-12 education should the cuts be made
WHAT IT MEANS
How much less would be allotted per student