Dan Walters

Dan Walters: School cap once again on agenda

There are many other unworthy contenders, but Senate Bill 858 may be the most pointlessly cynical legislative act of this still-young century.

It was drafted in the dead of night and hastily enacted as a budget “trailer bill” last year with no more than a cursory gesture toward public notice.

It stands as a prime example of how trailer bills, which are supposed to enact provisions of the state budget, are misused as stealthy vehicles for decrees that have little or nothing to do with the budget.

SB 858, among other things, places strict limits on local school districts’ financial reserves whenever the state places surplus revenue in a state school aid reserve.

That, unto itself, is bad public policy, discouraging local school boards from preparing for the state’s periodic economic recessions and the revenue losses they bring.

Moreover, in not only signing the bill but asking the Legislature to pass it, Gov. Jerry Brown violated two supposed principles that he’s repeatedly invoked – setting aside money in rainy-day reserves and “subsidiarity,” which he’s defined as leaving local matters in the hands of local officials, especially in education.

Thus, he demonstrated – not for the first time – that he will gladly set aside principle when expedient politics require it.

In this case, as he later acknowledged, albeit indirectly, it was to placate the California Teachers Association, which wants school reserves minimized so that more money remains on the table for contract negotiations.

Brown didn’t want the CTA to oppose his own state rainy-day reserve measure, Proposition 2, on last November’s ballot, and cracking down on school district reserves apparently satisfied the union’s leaders.

That demonstrated another cynical aspect of the measure – the almost total power that the union exerts over the state’s officeholders on education issues, even compelling a popular governor to do something nonsensical.

Local school officials quickly figured out ways to get around the reserve limit, but it still grated on them as a gratuitous slap by the CTA and its compliant politicians.

In January, after Proposition 2 had passed, Brown said he would “engage in a dialogue … to protect the financial security and health of local school districts.”

The reserve limit should be repealed, but that would be an admission that passing it was an error, and it’s not in politicians’ DNA to admit mistakes.

On Tuesday, local school officials and a bipartisan group of legislators announced a bill, Senate Bill 799, to modify the cap, raising it from 6 percent of spending for most districts to 17 percent.

Although short of repeal, the increase would probably make the cap inoperative for virtually all districts.

Whether even that can be enacted, however, is problematic, dependent on whether the union will loosen its grip even a little. Tellingly, a CTA spokeswoman continued to defend the limit, saying, “Those funds are not doing anybody any good sitting in bank accounts.”

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