The way Steven Ladd describes planning next year's Elk Grove Unified budget sounds a bit like composing a Farmers' Almanac forecast.
"We look at the nature of what's taking place with the budget, the nature of the economy, the nature of what people are prognosticating," said Ladd, the district superintendent. "You have to keep an eye on what's taking place in the Legislature or lack thereof."
K-12 schools have imposed cuts the past three years, relying heavily on layoffs and shortening the school year. Federal stimulus funds have run dry.
But school budget veterans say projecting this year is even more difficult because Gov. Jerry Brown is counting on $11.2 billion in voter-approved taxes to spare schools from cuts, a huge contingency. Republicans have blocked that proposal so far.
Districts typically prepare for a worst-case scenario while the budget remains in limbo, but few people agree on what that might be.
Orange County school districts are planning for a cut of $349 per student. Elk Grove assumed a cut of $679 per pupil. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says a worst-case scenario might be $750 per student or $22,500 in a 30-student classroom.
The gulf in those calculations is instrumental in determining how many teachers to lay off, how much to shorten the school year and how many programs to eliminate. Some districts say they would have to seek a state loan bailout in the analyst's worst-case scenario, a move of last resort that essentially involves a state takeover.
"Aiming in this climate is almost impossible," said Dennis Meyers, assistant executive director for the California Association of School Budget Officials.
The Democratic governor has not specified what would happen if his taxes fail, but he has alluded to shortening the school year by a month. He also has vowed to reject accounting gimmicks.
Unlike Elk Grove, most districts have prepared as if those were empty threats.
Under an all-cuts budget, the Legislative Analyst's Office says, K-12 districts could lose about $4.3 billion. Possibly 90 percent of districts, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, have prepared their budgets as if K-12 schools would lose only $2.1 billion, or roughly $349 per student.
That approach has baffled some state leaders, who want districts to anticipate the absolute worst. Torlakson said districts should account for a $4.5 billion, all-cuts budget. Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, was "perplexed" that districts aren't.
"Are we all just hoping for the best?" Simitian asked at a recent Capitol hearing.
County offices of education, which provide budgeting oversight, and the influential School Services of California, recommended the lower cut figure in January.
School Services President and CEO Ron Bennett said it was based on an assumption that lawmakers would not suspend Proposition 98, the constitutional guarantee that determines a minimum level of school funding. He noted that Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, has said there are no votes for that approach.
An all-cuts budget with a $4.5 billion reduction to K-12 schools would require lawmakers to suspend Proposition 98 on a two-thirds vote.
"I just don't believe the votes are there to do an all-cuts budget, and I hope the votes are there to extend the taxes at the polls or in the Legislature," Bennett said.
He says there are further challenges that make a deep schools cut unlikely. He said districts can't easily shorten the school year by three additional weeks because doing so would require approval from teachers unions. It would also force many districts to seek state loans, he suggested, a path that requires California to take over management of districts.
He also noted that tax revenues are trending higher than expected, a boost that could reduce cuts for schools.
Still, Simitian warned against being too optimistic. He noted the Legislature has twice suspended Proposition 98 in the past decade. He voted against suspension the previous two times, but said, "There isn't a chance in the world that Proposition 98 will be sustained if $12 billion disappears from the budget."
Or, as veteran schools lobbyist Bob Blattner described the lower cut estimate, "It's like taking water wings instead of a lifeboat on the Titanic. If the Titanic stays afloat, you don't need the water wings. If it does sink, they aren't going to do you any good because you're going to freeze to death."
In Orange County, 27 districts will submit budgets based on the lower cut estimate, said Orange County Superintendent of Schools William Habermehl. But districts have brainstormed ways to absorb a deeper cut should it happen.
"We know what we would have to do," Habermehl said. "Most schools have gone down to the minimum 175 days a year. We would have to have a reduction in that, down to 150 or 165."
He acknowledged that would be unlikely unless the Legislature suspended collective bargaining and forced teachers to take a monthlong furlough.
Budget officials say that at the very least, they want the Legislature to provide guidance for the next year so they can determine how deep to cut before classes begin in August. It is one reason many school leaders and the California Teachers Association do not want their funding determined by voters in the fall with the school year in full stride.
"That would be horrible for school districts," Meyers said. "What would they plan for? That's why we're urging the Legislature to adopt a revenue extension for at least another fiscal year and put on the ballot a question of what happens after 2011-12."