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Our View: The battle for reform must begin today

Posted: January 15, 2010 7:26 p.m.
Updated: January 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

Picture, if you will, the Santa Clarita Valley in 1974.

The valley floor was carpeted with vast fields of onions, carrots and alfalfa. The population stood at less than 80,000. Sparse tract housing peppered pockets of the community.

Traffic was at a minimum. College of the Canyons had a little more than 1,000 students.

Now take a mental snapshot of the SCV as it is today, swelled to a population of some 250,000 people.

Industrial parks and swaths of neat houses and condominiums have long since replaced the agricultural fields.

COC has grown to two campuses with nearly 25,000 students. Traffic — on every road, it often seems — is the norm.

In 30-plus years we’ve seen a night-and-day change in the makeup of our community.

Sadly, at least one thing hasn’t changed.

As reported Saturday by Signal education writer Tammy Marashlian, our schools still receive the lowest funding in the county — in spite of our valley’s radical growth over the past three decades.

Base revenue funding — centered around the property tax base — provides the lion’s share of local school budgets. The formula used to determine the allotments was designed in 1974 with low base revenue limits and hasn’t changed since.

School districts are paid the base revenue limit for each student in attendance, not the total number of students enrolled in the district.

For example, the 2008/09 fiscal year budget for the William S. Hart Union High School District — the least-funded high school district in Los Angeles County — included less than $6,000 per student in base revenue funding.

The Saugus Union School District — which is considering closing two schools to address looming budget shortfalls — was the least-funded of the county’s 28 elementary school districts, getting about $5,000 per student.

Compare that with the rural Gorman School District, which as the highest-funded elementary district in the county had a base revenue of nearly $6,500 per student.

Keep in mind that all of those figures came after an across-the-board 7.84 percent state budget cut.

And never mind that the Gorman district has about 900 students — compared to about 10,000 in the Saugus district.

Don’t get us wrong. Our valley’s educators do a fine job with the funding they receive. The quality of our schools is the reason many people decide to move to the SCV.

But imagine how much better things could be if the distribution of funds was fair; if our legislators did something radical and considered the SCV is not the same place it was in 1974 and updated the funding formula based on the current population.

Now imagine what our schools could do if we just got our fair share. All we are asking is for our legislators to get the funding formula updated to reflect the SCV of today, instead of 1974.

Getting the money we need and deserve will not be an easy task.

While politicians have no problem updating elected office districts (redistricting) to basically guarantee their reelection, we predict getting a school funding formula updated after 35 years will be pooh-poohed as an impossible task.

Why is that? We all know the answer. Getting more money to SCV schools will mean taking money from school districts somewhere else.

It won’t matter that such a change would be done to accurately reflect the size and needs of all communities.

Rather than tackle this, Sacramento will choose to put its head in the sand on one more issue, continuing to overpay some school districts and underfund others.

Ultimately, this is not about some sort of ham-handed, financial manifest destiny. Rather, it is one more reason our state is in dire need of comprehensive budget reform.

While our elected officials in Sacramento continue to dither over coming up with a budget that makes sense and works, our schools — and ultimately our children; our future — are being withheld their full potential.

Reforming the budget, and more specifically, reforming our school funding system, will be a bloody, uphill battle. Years of inaction, missteps and just plain abdication by both parties has put us in this position.

No one said leadership is easy. But fighting for a win-win outcome is always worth it.

Our elected officials need to start waging that battle today, and should there be any doubt or hesitation, the voters of California need to make crystal clear when casting their ballots this year that business as usual in Sacramento will no longer be tolerated.

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