While nobody's shouting it, education advocates in Sacramento have begun talking quietly about a doomsday scenario — in which districts close schools as much as weeks early if the state runs out of cash.
"This is actually something folks in education have said is a possibility," said Hillary McLean, press secretary for State Superintendent Jack O'Connell on Wednesday. "Of course, no one is advocating it. But with a budget crisis of these proportions, this has been bandied about."
McLean would not say who was discussing the drastic option, or if they included lawmakers, officials or lobbyists. But she said she has heard the topic come up in private conversations at high levels.
While severely shortening the academic year may be an unprecedented step in California, many Oregon districts did just that in 2003 due to a budget crunch caused by falling tax revenues.
"It has happened in other states," said Lisa Grant-Dawson, chief financial officer for the Vallejo City Unified School District. "It could happen here. But it would be a state emergency, an unforeseen event."
But the scenario, however unlikely, could play out if lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger don't solve California's $11.2 billion shortfall for this fiscal year. The state could run out of money in February — a month sooner than previously estimated, State Controller John Chiang said this week.
"If we don't have a solution that protects education, closing schools early would be one of the drastic options that would have to be considered," McLean said.
It is unclear what districts would do if the state treasury runs dry and forces early school closures.
One problem would be deciding if teachers and others would get paid 11 percent less if school is out after 160 days, for example, rather than the required 180.
"I have not heard about ending school early although I know that happened in Oregon," Benicia Unified School District Superintendent Janice Adams said. "Our employees have contracts, I don't know how the state would address this."
"It certainly isn't something each district would decide; this would require state intervention," Adams added.
Another unknown is what districts will do if the state issues warrants instead of cash to districts.
A warrant is a promise to pay, when the money comes from the state.
"It definitely depends on cash reserves districts have and how much (accounting) flexibility the state allows," Grant-Dawson said. "There would have to be legislation that would allow districts to land softly."
And how would districts deal with direct deposit for staff members who have it?
"It would require the state to talk to the banks," Grant-Dawson suggested. "I assume the banks wouldn't accept anything other than cash."
"These are huge issues that all districts in the state are dealing with and there are no simple answers," Adams said. "We are all waiting to hear what the legislature is going to do, but we expect it to be grim."
Both Vallejo and Benicia — and districts across the state — are grappling with enormous midyear cuts that may lead to layoffs and further reductions to art and music.
Vallejo must slash $4.9 million. Adams is recommending $400,000 in midyear cuts and $1.2 million in reductions for each of the next two school years.
At its meeting Thursday, the Benicia school board will consider the proposed elimination of the director of maintenance and operations for the remainder of the year as well as other reductions.