(Courtesy of The San Francisco Chronicle)
California’s budget, already on shaky footing with tax revenues coming in lower than forecast, was hit with three new problems Wednesday when advocates for public schools, the developmentally disabled and cities filed separate lawsuits challenging the spending plan.
The California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators and three school districts claim the budget shortchanges schools by $2.1 billion, while service providers for people with developmental disabilities argue that a $91 million cut runs afoul of federal and state mandates.
The League of California Cities filed a suit challenging a shift of $130 million in vehicle license fee money from cities to counties to pay for realignment, the criminal justice overhaul engineered by the governor to reduce the prison population.
If successful, the lawsuits would add even more uncertainty to the state’s fiscal situation and further limit the ability of lawmakers and the governor to make cuts.
The school lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, was joined by school districts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Turlock (Stanislaus County).
“We decided to join this lawsuit because we can no longer just sit idly by and patiently watch as the state shortchanges future generations of students,” said San Francisco Superintendent Carlos Garcia. “School districts across this wonderful state have trimmed everything, and we’re saying, ‘We’re not going to put up with this anymore, we’re going to stand up for ourselves.’ ”
The lawsuit challenges the redirecting of $2.1 billion this fiscal year from public schools, which the groups claim the state owes under Prop. 98. That voter-approved measure guarantees that a certain portion of the general fund be spent on K-12 schools and community colleges.
As part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget plan, the state shrank the general fund by redirecting a portion of state sales tax revenue to counties to also pay for the realignment plan.
School officials believe that illegally shortchanged school spending by shrinking the pot from which their funding is calculated, though funding stayed essentially the same as under the previous budget.
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said the state was within its legal rights to transfer the sales tax money out of the general fund. And he noted that state officials plan to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot that would fund realignment permanently, as well as provide extra school funding. If that initiative fails, the law calls for the state to repay schools the $2.1 billion over the next five years.
“We believe the courts will find that the action the Legislature took in this matter is legal and appropriate,” he said.
The lawsuit also shows some of the fault lines in education in the state, as the budget deal was signed off by the powerful California Teachers Association. Dean Vogel, the union’s president, called the suit “premature and unnecessary.”
The second lawsuit, on behalf of the providers for disability services, was filed by the Arc of California and the United Cerebral Palsy Association of San Diego in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
The plaintiffs contend that California did not receive appropriate federal approval to make reductions in the amount of money paid to providers of various services to people with developmental disabilities. The suit also contends that the reductions were made solely for budgetary reasons and do not take into account legally required levels of services.
Tony Anderson, executive director of the Arc of California, said the group considered such a lawsuit in the past but held off because it believed the previous funding levels would be restored.
But, he said, “In our view, it’s just gotten worse and there’s no other alternative for us.”
Reimbursement rates, which vary for the different services such as housing and transportation, had been flat since 2003 and then in 2009 were reduced 3 percent. Last year, they were reduced another 1.5 percent to a total of 4.5 percent, and the current budget maintains the reduction.
That has taken a toll on organizations like the Arc of San Francisco, which is the service provider for Joseph Napoliello, a 31-year-old San Franciscan with a severe developmental disability that requires him to have constant care. That care allows him to be an active member of the community, said his mother Pat Napoliello, and it is less expensive than sending him to a state developmental center. But sending him to such a center might be the only alternative, depending on program cuts.
Nancy Lungren, spokeswoman for the Department of Developmental Services, said the department met with various stakeholders to discuss where to make cuts. She said providing necessary services was the top concern.
“Given the size of the budget shortfall, difficult decisions are needed. However, consumer health and safety remains our highest priority,” she said.