Top educators in the Mother Lode say some schools might be forced to cut the school year and lay off teachers if voters reject a pair of tax initiatives that will appear on the November ballot.
Proposition 30, a tax hike proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would set aside money for education to prevent further cuts and help pay what schools and community colleges are already owed.
Proposition 38, a competing tax initiative advocated by Pasadena attorney Molly Munger, would generate billions of dollars for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The two tax proposals, each requiring a simple majority for passage, are structured differently, but both would be temporary.
Proposition 30 would raise California's sales tax rate to 7.5 percent - up from 7.25 - for the next four years. It would also place a progressive income tax, lasting seven years, on those earning more than $250,000 annually.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that Proposition 30 would raise about $6 billion a year between 2012 and 2019, with lower amounts in some years.
A portion of the revenues would be funneled into an "Education Protection Account," with 89 percent going to kindergarten through 12th-grade schools and 11 percent to community colleges.
If Proposition 30 is voted down, the state budget plan for 2012-13 requires spending cuts of $6 billion, and schools would bear the brunt.
Supporters of Proposition 30 say the governor or California Legislature cannot use money in the Education Protection Account for other purposes.
Opponents of the measure have said Brown is holding schools "hostage" to force the approval of the plan. They also question guarantees that schools will get funding and the fairness of raising taxes.
Proposition 38 would raise income taxes for most Californians, beginning next year. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that it would generate $10 billion a year in its initial years, with some fluctuation depending on the economy.
The measure has its own critics, some of whom say it won't address other issues in the state budget and taxes people who can't afford it.
If both Proposition 30 and Proposition 38 pass, the one with the most votes will take effect. And if Proposition 38 prevails, spending reductions will still be implemented, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
For that reason, Proposition 30 has figured most prominently in discussions at local school board meetings.
Though educators have pointed out shortcomings in both ballot measures, they say a solution to California's education funding crisis is badly needed.
Since 2007-08, the last year public schools were fully funded in California, they have implemented cuts that ranged from teacher layoffs to the complete elimination of programs such as music and adult education.
"We've frozen most spending across the board, cut administrative costs by 30 percent, and we did layoffs," said Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mike McCoy. "We put ourselves into a survival mode."
The district, which has an enrollment of approximately 1,100 students, has lost about $1 million in funding every year for the past five years. The school put its adult education program on hold this year to save money.
Under the advice of the county superintendent of schools, Tuolumne County school districts have
planned for this year on the assumption that Proposition 30 will fail.
The passage of the initiative could allow districts such as Sonora High to restore programs or positions they've eliminated.
But its failure would make the anticipated cuts a reality and send school budgets spiraling into a cycle of further reductions, according to Tami Ethier, the Tuolumne County Office of Education's assistant superintendent for business services.
Two Tuolumne County school districts - Sonora High and Curtis Creek - saw their budgets go into "qualified" status this spring, meaning that they may not be able to meet their financial obligations within the next two fiscal years.
Both will have updated information in November, when schools are required to issue budget reports.
If voters reject Proposition 30, the number of school districts in qualified budget status could reach four or five - about half the number of districts in the county, according to Ethier.
Based on a statewide average, schools will lose up to $506 per student if the measure fails, she said.
If Proposition 30 is defeated, the per-student "trigger cuts" will cause Sonora Union High School District to lose about $500,000 this year. As a consequence, its only options would be to consider teacher layoffs or even shortening the school year, McCoy said.
School districts will be permitted to reduce up to 20 class days from the school year if the ballot measure fails, a step that would require negotiation with employees' unions.
Cuts could happen in some form as early as next spring, McCoy said. However, Sonora High would only implement school year reductions after discussion with other schools in the county.
"We're really positively rooting for Proposition 30," McCoy said. "All people are that are in public service. We just see it as a necessary evil … If Proposition 30 passes, it'll avert catastrophe, but we're still going to be in battle mode."
For Summerville Union High School District, a loss of about $460 per student would be worsened by cuts to funding for very small schools such as South Fork High School, which is located in the Jupiter area for students who would have to drive too far to Summerville High.
Summerville Union High School District's total loss from a Proposition 30 failure would amount to $337,000, according to Chief Business Official Tonya Midget. Combined with an existing deficit, that means $600,000 less to work with year after year.
"We can't sustain that," Midget said. "We would be forced to reduce teacher contracts, administrator contracts and classified support. The kids would feel it, with bigger class sizes and fewer school days."
Summerville High has a reserve fund of about $2.4 million, thanks to what Midget described as a fiscally conservative approach by the district's Board of Education.
"We could creep down to a lower reserve, but we don't want to completely spend that and have nothing to fall back on," she said.
Midget also manages finances for the Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District, which stands to lose about $294,000 if Proposition 30 fails.
In the spring, the district's Board of Education voted to close the 35-student Pinecrest School to avoid bankruptcy within the next few years. Earlier, it closed Black Oak Elementary School.
Proposition 30's failure would force Twain Harte-Long Barn to continue the difficult choices.
"We're back in the same dilemma of facing bankruptcy without cuts," Midget said. "We've cut so deep at Twain Harte that we'd have to find more creative places to cut."
Sonora Elementary School, planning to deficit spend more than $50,000 if Proposition 30 fails, has forgone filling teacher positions after retirements. As of this year, it no longer has a full-time counselor.
Sonora Elementary Superintendent Leigh Shampain said the approval of Proposition 30 could help cut class sizes at both Sonora Elementary and Summerville Elementary School, a district he also oversees.
Some school districts, such as Columbia Union School District in Tuolumne County and Mark Twain Union School District in Calaveras County, have managed to build reserves that would help them endure trigger cuts at the state level for the time being.
Within three years, though, Mark Twain Union would burn through reserves and face the same dilemma as other districts - cut programs, reduce staff or risk eventual bankruptcy.
No school districts in Calaveras County have "qualified" budgets yet, according to Calaveras County Office of Education Associate Superintendent Claudia Davis. But they have been advised to develop contingency plans in case Proposition 30 fails.
Perhaps nowhere are the potential impacts of funding cuts clearer than the 3,300-student Calaveras Unified School District, which will sustain what Superintendent Mark Campbell called a $1.4 million "punch in the face" if voters turn down Proposition 30.
Though the district's reserves are able to absorb the funding cuts this year, Campbell said a Proposition 30 failure would force it to consider a range of drastic measures to close a deepening deficit.
That could include the elimination of both music and athletic programs at the middle and high school level, laying off 11 teachers, increasing class sizes to 30 in all grades, shortening the school year by at least five days, and closing Rail Road Flat and Jenny Lind Alternative High School.
Calaveras Unified will need to make cuts even if Proposition 30 passes, but its passage would narrow the range of possible cuts to layoffs and the closure of small schools.
And Mother Lode students wouldn't escape the effect of "trigger cuts" after graduating high school. The Yosemite Community College District, which includes Columbia College, would lose $5.3 million in state funding if Proposition 30 is rejected.
Columbia College would lose $795,000, right on the heels of last year's spending cuts at the school. It already has waitlists for some classes and isn't able to serve as many students.
"It's hard to imagine how we could possibly cut back more than what we have," Gervin said. "It's just like a freight train. We're doing everything we can to plan."