Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger crowed about protecting education when he released his budget, he failed to mention a $1.5 billion cut planned for next year along with a decreased cost of living adjustment.

"I question the statement he is protecting public education with his proposal," said Joe Ovick, superintendent of the Contra Costa County Office of Education.

A San Mateo County school leader was more succinct.

"It's clear at this point that it's completely untrue that the governor is protecting education," said Craig Baker, interim superintendent of the San Carlos School District. His district had braced for a $1.5 million loss but now anticipates losing at least $600,000 more.

Other education officials statewide echoed those sentiments as they realized the budget proposal would mean cuts of more than $200 per student in most districts. The Mt. Diablo school district saw its projected deficit balloon from $17 million by 2012 to $35.3 million, due to the governor's budget and declining enrollment.

"We're taking things away that should never have been taken away," trustee Paul Strange said Tuesday before voting to eliminate some librarians and music teachers and to look at school closures.

Of the $1.5 billion, the governor earmarked $1.2 billion in administrative costs and $300 million in savings expected by allowing districts to contract out for services. But many districts, such as Mt. Diablo, have already cut deeply in administration in an effort to keep reductions away from classrooms.


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"This year, we cut over $30 million," interim superintendent Dick Nicoll said. "That includes 28 administrators. We're disappointed, of course."

Before Schwarzenegger's budget release, the Oakland school district projected a $28 million deficit for the next school year, which it expects to deepen.

The Pleasanton school district's anticipated $3.6 million deficit increased to $6.9 million based on the governor's budget.

But the education budget hit is less brutal than what some other agencies are facing, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, which is giving budget workshops to district representatives statewide. In a sense, he said, Schwarzenegger is protecting education by not hitting it as hard as he has in the past.

"The governor could have been a little more forthcoming in his speeches," Bennett said. "Some people say, 'That's deceptive.' What I say is, 'If you're going to make your budget policy based on political speeches, you're going to die soon.'"

Some school districts are facing near-death experiences. They stayed afloat after drastic cuts in the past two years by using one-time money such as federal stimulus funds to fill budget gaps.

"The state economy has not recovered, the one-time money is gone and now we have this additional cut," Bennett said. "In my opinion, next year will be the worst funding year that public schools have ever had in California."

That remains to be seen. Bennett's organization plans to lobby legislators to allow flexibility in the cuts instead of targeting administration.

They will not be sure where they stand until the revised budget is released in May. In the meantime, they are rushing to cut as fast as they can.

Staff writers Katy Murphy, Robert Jordan, Neil Gonzales and Shelly Meron contributed to this story.