Supt. offers hope amid deep cutbacks

County superintendent lauds local schools’ low dropout rate and discusses ways to maintain quality education despite diminished funding.

February 25, 2010|By Tom Ragan

The Orange County superintendent of schools delivered mixed news in his State of Education address Thursday in Costa Mesa.

In giving the annual speech about the health of Orange County’s school system, William M. Habermehl said millions of dollars in state funding cutbacks have hampered the ability to educate students.

But he emphasized that hope is not lost.

Despite the $500 million in losses accrued over the past two years, Orange County public schools, which are divided into 27 districts and comprise a half-million students, do have something going for them: the lowest dropout rate in the region compared with Riverside, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.


A 2.8% dropout rate was recorded last year, and Orange County schools have also made gains in math and English for the seventh straight year, according to the Academic Performance Index of standardized test scores.

Students chalked up an average improvement of 5 points at the elementary and middle school levels on the tests. At the high school level, students did better by 2 points — not too shabby compared with scores statewide, Habermehl said.

But without question the real test for schools lies ahead, given California’s economic climate and the sharp drop in state money available to local schools these days, he said.

Forty-one percent of the state budget, after all, is dedicated to education funding, but that scenario will soon become a thing of the past as Sacramento struggles with budgetary woes of its own and continues to withhold money from school districts.

In addressing a crowd of more than 300 educators, elected officials and community leaders, Habermehl said the drastic cuts in funding have put Orange County schools in “the difficult position of finding ways to balance their budgets while striving to maintain a quality education for their students.”

He added that, “Cuts of this magnitude have the potential to lower quality in our schools, which could lead to lower test scores, higher dropout rates and students who are less prepared for the workforce.

“This will ultimately affect our economic and community well-being,” he said.

One solution, Habermehl said, would be to try to give local schools more control over their finances instead of leaving education funding solely up to state policy makers in Sacramento.

Other good ideas, he added, would be to invest more in high-quality preschool programs, increase access to online programs and eliminate unfunded mandates.

Too often, he said, the state does not reimburse schools for expenses incurred by state law and decisions made by the courts.

“Costs that are mandated,” he said, “have instead been deferred from one year to the next.”

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