Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Local school budgets have improved this spring, but the future remains uncertain due to federal cost-cutting measures and a proposal to reform education funding in California.

Three local school districts that risked being unable to pay their long-term expenses - Calaveras Unified School District, Sonora Union High School District and Curtis Creek School District - are on more solid footing than they were last year.

The passage of Proposition 30, a temporary sales and income tax increase, prevented more cuts to state education funding and helped stabilize the districts' shaky finances.

School officials have stressed, though, that the money doesn't fill the large gaps left by state cuts following the recession. California schools haven't been fully funded since the 2007-08 academic year.

"Proposition 30 kept education funding at about 20 percent below what it was at 2007," said Claudia Davis, Calaveras County Office of Education associate superintendent for business services. "We're not out of the woods in terms of overall funding."

Calaveras Unified and Sonora High were the two Tuolumne and Calaveras districts that had "qualified" budgets in December. That meant they could have found themselves unable to pay their expenses through the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Curtis Creek's budget carried the "qualified" designation earlier in 2012, but improved first. Now all three districts are able to meet their financial obligations.

Calaveras Unified and Sonora High both offered retirement incentives to their oldest teachers as a cost-saving measure.

At Calaveras Unified, which still has a deficit of more than $2.1 million, 11 teachers have accepted the retirement incentives. Only six of their positions will be filled again, resulting in a savings of about $300,000, said Superintendent Mark Campbell.

Six Sonora High teachers accepted retirement incentives in the form of annual cash payments. Sonora High is still determining how many vacant positions will be filled, said district Chief Business Official Kim Burr.

Fewer local school districts issued layoff notices this spring than in years past, when the economy's collapse led to a surfeit of pink slips.

Bret Harte employees, who had largely been spared layoffs in previous years, felt the brunt of them this spring. The school sent out full or partial layoff notices to seven teachers, a school administrator and support staffers March 15.

Bret Harte Superintendent Mike Chimente said the school's financial outlook seems better, and not all the layoff notices will be finalized before the deadline of May 15.

"It won't be that horrific number that was posted," Chimente said.

Meanwhile, the enrollment decline at Tuolumne County schools shows signs of bottoming out, which could eventually mean more money in per-student funding, said Tuolumne County Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Tami Ethier.

But sequestration - trigger cuts to the federal budget - could soon force schools to return part of the sum they receive from the Secure Rural Schools Act.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva said school districts have already spent the combined $482,000 they got from timber county subsidies earlier this year. It's unclear how schools would give back the money, he said.

The biggest uncertainties come from Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to overhaul school funding in California.

Brown wants to increase "local control" over spending and funnel more money to districts with poor students or English language learners.

Many Tuolumne and Calaveras County schools have a large number of poor students yet very few who are learning English, meaning they could receive less per-pupil funding than other districts.

But not everyone thinks local schools are making the best use of the money they do get.

A committee of Tuolumne County residents sees administrative "waste" in the six-figuresuperintendent salaries that will be paid this year and hopes to put all county school districts under one superintendent.

"It's not that (school district unification) wasn't a good idea 50 years ago, but enough money was coming in that we could still provide good schools with all this waste," said Dave Munson, a Tuolumne resident serving on the unification committee. "We've reached a level now where we can't."