After years of cutting programs and worrying about their financial future, public schools and other agencies in the Mother Lode may finally see the clouds lift - but with some caveats.
Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2013-14 budget for California, released Thursday, includes $2.7 billion more for K-12 schools and community colleges. It promises to pay back $1.8 billion owed to schools from previous years and overhaul the state's complicated system for education funding.
The $97.7 billion general fund budget even includes a projected $851 million surplus, which would be a dramatic change from the shortfall Brown encountered when he took office two years ago.
But after revision in May, the budget must pass the California Legislature, meaning that schools and other public agencies will face several months of uncertainty.
A number of Mother Lode officials said the fiscal storm they've weathered since 2008 may take a few more years to clear. Some educators expressed concern over a sweeping set of proposed education finance reforms.
"We have to see what the nuts and bolts of the budget proposal are," said Claudia Davis, associate superintendent of business services at the Calaveras County Office of Education. "Overall, it looks positive. But I think the devil is in the details."
If Brown's budget proposal becomes law, community colleges would receive $197 million more in general-purpose funding, in addition to $179 million already owed from recession years.
That will mean about $400,000 more for Columbia College next year, said college President Dennis Gervin.
Without the money, Columbia College would have had to cut more classes this spring and summer, the result of funding shortfalls that started in 2008.
"This is a step in the right direction," Gervin said. "Our summer session will really be robust. For the first time since 2009, we're looking at some really strong summer offerings."
Brown has also proposed transferring adult education programs entirely to community colleges.
For cost-saving reasons, Sonora Union High School District did not offer adult education classes this year. Gervin said it's too early to tell how community colleges might pick up the slack - or whether they'll actually get the money to do so.
The University of California and California State University systems would each receive $250 million more and are being urged by lawmakers not to raise tuition.
K-12 schools and community colleges are set to get a combined $2.7 billion more than they did in 2012-13. The education budget has been boosted by Proposition 30, a temporary sales and income tax increase passed by California voters in November.
Money for K-12 school transportation is preserved in the proposed 2013-14 budget, a relief for Tuolumne and Calaveras county school districts that bus most of their student populations.
Calaveras Unified School District, Sonora Union High School District and Curtis Creek School District all saw their budgets go into "qualified" status at some point in 2012.
That meant they may not have been able to meet their financial obligations within a few years. Curtis Creek has since reclassified its budget as positive, a designation being reviewed by the Tuolumne County Office of Education.
Sonora High, which had to lay off teachers as a result of the recession, isn't out of the woods yet.
"We have three more bad years ahead of us," said Sonora High Superintendent Mike McCoy, who is skeptical of Brown's claim to have eliminated the state deficit.
"We still have a hangover from what happened in spring 2008 and are having to make budget adjustments," he said.
The proposed budget won't eliminate the need for tough conversations at Calaveras Unified School District, either, with cuts likely necessary to address an ongoing deficit.
The district is still considering the closure of Rail Road Flat Elementary School and will have to proceed carefully when deciding to build a performing arts center at Calaveras High School, said Superintendent Mark Campbell.
New school policies
Local school boards might nominally have more control over money in coming years, since Brown has proposed doing away with a complicated system that earmarks funding by program.
Brown would also give more money to schools with a high percentage of poor students and English-language learners.
Most schools in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties enroll a very small number of students in the latter category. A few, such as Jamestown Elementary School and Belleview Elementary School, have more than 50 percent of their students getting free and reduced-price school lunches.
Brown would use that indicator to dole out funds, but McCoy said there's one problem: Many students stop signing up for free or reduced-price meals once they get to high school.
"It sounds good on the surface that Gov. Brown is going to try to put more money toward education," said Summerville Union High School District Chief Business Official Tonya Midget."But … I'm concerned that a lot of the funding will be shifted to schools in Southern California," she said.
Summerville High Superintendent John Keiter said the new formula and the budget's references to increased "local control" were misleading.
"I think it has the hallmark of a bad deal for Tuolumne County," Keiter said.
He and Tuolumne County Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Tami Ethier both pointed out that the details still need to be hashed out over the course of several months.
Other local effects
Many local government officials in the Mother Lode were getting acquainted with the 2013-14 budget proposal Friday and said they'll know more in coming weeks.
Interim Calaveras County Administrative Officer John Blacklock said Proposition 30 has prevented "dire" budget cuts for county-based programs, but the proposed budget would keep the reduced funding levels for local trial courts.
While the budget would not cut social service or public health programs, many were strained by Brown's austerity cuts over the past two years.
"Recall that the cuts have already been imposed and we're currently on a skeletal budget now," said Tuolumne County Public Health Officer Dr. Todd Stolp. "We're scrambling to try to keep something together."
Brown's office said the budget would follow federal healthcare reform by simplifying the eligibility process for Medi-Cal, the state's insurance program for low-income people and certain other groups.
The budget would also expand coverage to childless adults and uninsured parents, but a decision has yet to be made on whether the state or individual counties would handle the expansion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.