I just returned from a statewide superintendents’ conference where education leaders from all over California shared the challenges of increasing demands and shrinking budgets. While inspirational keynote speakers are great, they don’t put any more money in my budget. I wish our free public education were actually free. It’s not.

When you watch the news and hear that the governor has earmarked millions of dollars for education, it sounds great. The problem, of course, is that sound bites rarely tell the whole story.

Every January, our governor publishes a draft budget to determine how taxpayer dollars and federal funds should be spent. This gives lawmakers six months to adjust things before the final budget is approved in June. In recent years, education has enjoyed modest funding increases with the goal of returning districts to their pre-recession funding levels.

For Southern Humboldt Unified School District, that has meant reestablishing basic programs — what we refer to as our base program — to the degree possible during the last five years.

This year, Governor Jerry Brown’s January budget does not look good for education.

According to the California Department of Finance, statewide increases in pension funds — contributions to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System — will be approximately $1 billion, while the increase to the Local Control Accountability Plan gap will be $744 million. Basically, the increase to CalSTRS and CalPERS will exceed the amount of increased funding school districts will receive from the state.

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, SHUSD is operating with a structural deficit of approximately $300,000. If the state does not provide additional funding to address this deficit, our financial reserve will be depleted in a couple of years. Just as we approach having our base program back in place, we are faced with making cuts yet again. Such is the plight of schools in California.

Southern Humboldt Unified has several “necessary small schools” that are funded differently than larger schools. These types of schools are funded on “tiers.” Funding is based on arbitrary levels of attendance. The difference between these tiers is approximately $150,000. That means one day of attendance by one student can mean a difference of $150,000 for the district. Given that attendance has dropped across the district in recent years, that mean less money and therefore less teachers. Fewer teachers means larger class sizes, but state standards don’t change; expectations don’t drop. The message is clear: do more with less. I’m all for increased efficiency, but there are limits to what one human being can do, and our teachers and staff are reaching (if not beyond) that limit.

A new funding formula was implemented in California in recent years and it penalizes small schools. We must deal with the same challenges as many poor inner-city districts: violence, drug use, abuse, and students who deserve additional resources because of their special needs. But the state looks at the number of students we have compared to the number in Los Angeles, for example, and the money goes there, not here.

While we need to change some things in education, I do not support the type of changes recommended by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She favors gutting public education which would give advantages to those with financial means and leave everyone else behind—her policies would make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

When American children receive a public education, they are introduced to American values: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are taught that we live in the land of the free, the home of the brave. They begin to value the balance of power ensured by our three branches of government, the essential checks and balances that protect our democracy.

When children are exposed to classmates who do not think or believe or look as they do, they are often forced to find common ground, which is a vital skill. In a time when our country is polarizing, public school may be one of our most important institutions — a place where children can develop their own ideas while being challenged by those who may not agree.

If we want America to remain the land of opportunity, a free public education is essential. So even though our challenges are now even greater, I will keep fighting because our kids deserve every bit of energy we can devote to providing them with the key to unlocking their amazing futures: a good education.

Catherine Scott is the Superintendent of the Southern Humboldt Unified School District, based in Miranda. She can be reached at 707-943-1789.

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