Ex-ed chief signals improved outlook for schools

Speaking to about 60 area school officials at the Sacramento County Office of Education, O'Connell dished a gumbo of advice about the new budget and its potential impact on schools. O'Connell was recently hired to become education chief at School Innovations & Advocacy, an education lobbying firm based in Rancho Cordova.

He was joined by School Innovations & Advocacy advocate Barrett Snider and Kevin Gordon, the group's president, who each took turns explaining some of the complexities of the new budget that are troubling schools. Central to their discussion was helping to calm concerns over vague areas of the budget.

Although lawmakers gave districts the same amount of funds as last year, the new budget contains the possibility of midyear cuts if the state doesn't meet its revenue projections. Under the worst circumstances, districts could be forced to grapple with a $248 million cut in school busing funds and shave up to seven days off the school calendar.

O'Connell, who served two terms as state superintendent of public instruction and 20 years as both a state senator and Assembly member, doesn't think that scenario is realistic. He said he believes the state economy has turned the corner.

"I think there's uncertainty. I think that's fair," O'Connell said. "But hopefully with the continuing economic recovery that we're experiencing, we'll have enough revenue that we'll avoid the pulling of that trigger. That's my hope and my expectation."

Gordon said the measures were placed into the budget to appease Wall Street investors who wanted assurances that California had a back-up plan should the economy under-perform. Gordon said he believes the overall budgetary outlook is rosy for schools, and if the state's finances do plummet, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature would act quickly to stave off drastic school cuts.

"We believe this budget has the potential to reverse the trend of disproportional cuts to schools," Gordon said.

O'Connell expressed some disappointment that this year's budget didn't include taxes to help schools. However, he predicted that education would become a rallying cry for new taxes during the 2012 election, as several education groups have been discussing a push to generate more funds.

"Education is where you hook up your wagon," O'Connell said.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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