Thursday, August 16, 2007

Assembly budget takes from the neediest schools

Raiding funds set aside to repair crumbling schools is a shortsighted strategy for plugging holes in the state budget. The borrowing only postpones a real financial reckoning, while playing accounting games with a legal settlement. Whatever budget emerges from the Legislature should avoid the practice.

The budget the Assembly passed last month proposes to borrow $250 million in money set aside to repair substandard school facilities. The fund stems from the state's 2004 settlement of the Williams case, a class-action lawsuit over inadequate schools in California. As part of the settlement, the state agreed to allocate a total of $800 million for emergency repairs of classrooms at the lowest-performing public schools.

The emergency repair fund would have contained more than $400 million under the Assembly budget -- more than legislators expected districts would use this year. So the Assembly decided to grab $250 million of the money for other needs now, and repay the fund later.

Borrowing money to balance the budget is an irresponsible approach to state finances that only serves political convenience. The move avoids the tough decisions necessary to bring state finances into balance, while piling up debt that will weigh down future budgets.

But the Assembly's reasoning is particularly cynical here. The fund's hefty account balance only exists thanks to the Legislature's mishandling of the program. The 2004 legislation that set up the fund required districts to pay for repairs first, then apply for state reimbursement. But if districts had the money to fix crumbling schools, most of the facilities would not have fallen into disrepair in the first place.

Only last year did the Legislature change the law to let schools receive the repair money in grants before the work, rather than requiring schools to pay for repairs up front.

Thus the Assembly plan uses past legislative ineptitude to put off tricky financial decisions. And it furthers that goal by grabbing money meant to provide students with air conditioning, functional plumbing and other necessities.

The Williams lawsuit's revelations of substandard schools should have embarrassed every member of the Legislature. Who could have guessed the Assembly would find a way to use that case to be even more irresponsible with taxpayers' money?
From the Press Enterprise, on the California Progress Report.
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