Jerry Brown: Tax collector for the CTA state

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When Rudy Bermudez served in the Assembly, the L.A. County politician was so dedicated to the interests of the prison guards union that some joked the usual description after his name in news stories should be “Bermudez, D-CCPOA,” not “Bermudez, D-Norwalk.” With his announcement this week that he would insist on another phony budget in 2012-13 based on future revenue that is iffy at best, Gov. Jerry Brown increasingly looks like a much-more powerful version of Bermudez – except his favored unions are the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

First came the incredibly irresponsible concessions that Brown agreed to as part of the 2011-12 budget. It was bad enough that the budget only balanced because of $4 billion in imaginary revenue. But trailer bills tried to force local school districts to treat the fictional funds as real in making layoff decisions. They also stripped county boards of education of the local budget oversight powers that often serve as important checks on poorly run school systems. For a final emphasis on who is the boss in Sacramento, the way that automatic midyear trigger cuts were structured to provide budget relief to school districts — by allowing the cutting of the school year by 4 percent, or 7 days — is something that about half the state’s districts can’t impose unilaterally, because of their labor deals — unless their employee unions give their blessings. Good luck with that.

The California School Boards Association quickly pointed out how untenable this was and asked for relief in new legislation. The Legislature, of course, did nothing, and Brown was mum, too.

Now Brown is seeking to create maximum possible pressure on voters to approve November 2012 sales and income tax hikes by including the revenue they would generate in the 2012-13 budget he will unveil next month, with another round of automatic trigger cuts — hitting K-12 most of all — to take effect in midyear if voters balk at higher taxes.

But would this budget be accompanied by companion bills that give school districts the flexibility to deal with sharp cuts? An insider I talked to simply laughed at the idea.

Why? Because when it comes time to kiss the ring, Jerry Brown is just like all the other Democrats in California. This is not Jerry Brown, quirky zig-zagger. This is Jerry Brown acquiescing to the idea that the governor should be the tax collector for the CTA state.

This acquiescence has a much larger context, because the core budget problem at the micro level in school districts is also one of the core budget problems at the macro level in Sacramento. And that problem is the absolute insistence by the CTA and the CFT on maintaining as sacrosanct the pay practices under which most teachers automatically get significant raises just for accumulating years on the job or for taking graduate courses that don’t necessarily have anything to do with what they teach.

Because of these practices, compensation now eats up 90 percent or more of total general fund budgets in many school districts, a sharp increase over what was seen 20 years ago. This has happened because “step” (seniority) and “column” (education) pay increases force district budgets to go up by 6 percent or more each year, no matter if the state revenue picture is grim. And if state revenue is rosy, school boards dominated by teacher unions have a history of giving extra overall raises on top of the step and column pay hikes — raises that are locked into place when revenue ebbs.

So what happens when revenue isn’t sufficient to sustain the autopilot increases in teacher pay? School boards have to decide what to hack. Sometimes teachers with less seniority, whatever their level of competence, are jettisoned. But that normally happens after cuts are made in everything else — school nurses, learning materials, janitors, music, field trips, electronic equipment, buses, you name it. And after parents are pressured to pay for a hundred different things that the state Constitution says should be provided for free.

That’s just the sort of carnage we’ve seen so far. What will happen in the middle of the 2012-13 school year if voters reject tax hikes and new trigger cuts force big cuts in local school districts — and about half of the districts can’t compel their employee unions to take cuts? Many will inevitably be forced into insolvency. But many districts will seek to avoid insolvency by cutting everything but protected compensation for veteran teachers.

Goodbye, high school athletics, Goodbye, bus service but for the minimum required to meet federal mandates for special-needs students. Goodbye, funds for new textbooks, electronics, desks, supplies, you name it.

Many schools will be hollowed-out, with money for nothing but teachers’ salaries — the equivalent of Potemkin Villages, the fake small towns allegedly built by an 18-century Russian military leader to convince a touring Russian empress, Catherine II, of the glory of his territorial conquests.

By not giving school districts the power to compel employee concessions, this is the world Brown and the Legislature are on their way to creating — one in which, in the starkest fashion possible, it is established that the primary purpose of the K-12 education system in California is to protect the interests of adult employees.

This is bad enough. But it gets ridiculous when you realize that the compensation structure that Brown seems to be willing to do anything to protect is in many ways the core problem not just with school budgets but with school performance. By making teacher competence irrelevant to teacher compensation, K-12 schools exclude the most basic motivation that employees have to improve and do their best. And by making what teachers teach irrelevant in how much they are paid, K-12 schools make it impossible for district leaders to make fundamental decisions about employees’ value. Why is a gym teacher valued the same as a great math, science or reading instructor, or a kindergarten teacher who can leave a lifetime imprint on students?

Because the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers say so, that’s why. And when the CTA and CFT say jump, Brown and the Legislature ask, “How high?” And so they’re prepared to go all-in to protect an utterly broken status quo. That is astounding — and many other less printable adjectives.