In summary

California school districts have two choices: Bite the bullet and make budget cuts now, or delay them and face even more painful decisions.

California school districts have two choices: Bite the bullet and make budget cuts now, or delay them and face even more painful decisions.

That was the ultimatum Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a school finance agency, delivered to district leaders last week.

But warnings have been popping up everywhere. The state is hiring a fiscal consultant to help San Francisco Unified — which is currently facing a $116 million shortfall — figure out how to slash 13% of its $1 billion annual budget. Hayward Unified is considering closing an elementary school — one that primarily serves immigrant families — to plug budget gaps. West Contra Costa Unified, confronting a possible $30 million deficit, says it may have to lay off teachers.

Yet the state is pouring a record amount of money into education. So what gives?

Some of the primary culprits, experts say, are declining attendance and enrollment — which partially determine school funding. During the first year of the pandemic, California’s public schools lost more than 160,000 students — the largest enrollment drop in two decades. Although this year’s statewide numbers haven’t yet been released, the numbers from individual districts are grim. Los Angeles Unified’s enrollment has fallen by more than 27,000 students since last year, while San Francisco Unified lost 3,500 students over the past two years.

The state Department of Finance, meanwhile, predicts that California’s pre-pandemic enrollment will decrease by 703,000 students by 2031.

The state is still funding schools based on their pre-pandemic enrollment, but — unless lawmakers intervene, which some administrators are begging them to do — that practice will come to an end next year. Schools could then see their funding affected by declining enrollment and surging chronic absenteeism.

Money isn’t the only challenge schools face. On Monday, some parents kept their kids home from school and held demonstrations to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s student vaccine mandate. Also Monday, San Francisco officials announced three school board members will face a recall election in February

And although schools next year will start providing free meals to all students, they aren’t required to make dietary accommodations for religious beliefs — which could disproportionately impact Muslim students, CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 4,588,231 confirmed cases (+0.4% from previous day) and 70,416 deaths (+0.4% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 51,271,175 vaccine doses, and 72% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election, which will be certified Oct. 22.

1. Rain hits parched landscape

Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Photo via iStock
Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Photo via iStock

The bad news: California just wrapped up its driest year in a century and its second-driest year in recorded history, with only 11.87 inches of rain and snow falling in the Golden State from Oct. 1, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021, according to the Western Regional Climate Center. That’s half of the 23.58 inches California logs in an average water year — suggesting that mandatory statewide restrictions could be on the way as devastating drought persists. On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Lake Mead, the Nevada reservoir that supplies water to 25 million people in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, to promote the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate change packages (which are currently stalled in Congress). Behind her, the reservoir’s water levels were at their lowest in history.

The good news: Rain and snow are here! A light shower of rain fell on Sacramento Sunday night, ending a record-long dry spell that had for stretched 212 days. Unfortunately, the rain also knocked out power for 35,000 PG&E customers, 11,000 of whom still lacked power Monday morning. Drizzle fell on Los Angeles Monday morning, and snow was dusting the Sierras. Another rainstorm is forecasted to drench much of Northern California tonight, ushering in a string of isolated showers expected to last through next week. However, experts warned that particularly heavy rainfall could result in mudslides near recent wildfire burn areas.

In other environment news: Rep. Nanette Barragán, a San Pedro Democrat, asked Newsom Monday to declare a state of emergency in Carson, where the foul smell of hydrogen sulfide has been swirling for more than two weeks.

2. Fiona Ma in hot water — again

State Treasurer Fiona Ma.

Should California’s statewide elected officials who decide not to relocate to Sacramento be able to charge taxpayers for their lodging, meals and travel? The question — raised in 2019 when Politico reported that Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara was charging taxpayers thousands of dollars to rent a Sacramento apartment while maintaining a primary residence in Los Angeles — reemerged in a Monday Sacramento Bee report. The investigation found that Treasurer Fiona Ma — who maintains a primary residence in San Francisco — is the only statewide officer who consistently charged her food and lodging costs to taxpayers while staying in Sacramento. (Lara stopped charging taxpayers for the Sacramento apartment in 2019.) It’s the latest bit of bad press for Ma, who is also facing scrutiny for sharing hotel rooms with staff and a sexual harassment lawsuit from a former employee. 

  • Ma: “I am a dedicated public servant who takes my responsibilities and stewardship of California’s dollars and resources seriously, and this will always be my highest priority.” 
  • Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association: “If you run for statewide office, you should be expected to maintain — at your own expense — a residence in Sacramento.”

3. Did Bay Area cops make criminal threats?

Police lights on during the night. Photo via iStock
Photo via iStock

A superior court judge on Monday was set to consider an 18-year-old woman’s request for a temporary restraining order against her relatives, Oakland police sergeant Lee French and his wife, Richmond Police Chief Bisa French. It’s the latest development in a convoluted and controversial case that has resulted in criminal investigations involving at least five law enforcement agencies — and raised questions about the Frenches’ blurring of personal and professional boundaries as they tried to wrest their young relative away from a man who they believed was sex trafficking her, according to reports from the East Bay Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

But the teenager denies she is a victim and calls Oho McNair, 34, her “partner.” In her restraining order request, she said the Frenches tried to physically restrain her against her will and threatened to kill McNair. Police are also investigating whether the Frenches made criminal threats against McNair’s mother when they confronted her at her home. Both the Frenches are now on leave from their respective police departments, while McNair — who was previously convicted of sex trafficking — has pled not guilty to felony charges of pimping and pandering in connection to the teenager.

  • Mike Rains, the Frenches’ attorney: “I’ve not heard of any allegations out there that they’re trying to use their badge or law enforcement status in any way. … Even a couple of cops never realized the power these guys can exert over a girl.”

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s ban on gas-powered lawn equipment will hit the little guys hardest.

Clean water in California is overdue: As we approach the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, the state must ensure swimmable, fishable and drinkable waters for all residents, writes Sean Bothwell of the California Coastkeeper Alliance.

Other things worth your time

Amid federal charges, Mark Ridley-Thomas will ‘step back’ from council duties, but not resign. // Los Angeles Times

California union moves to strip SEIU Local 1000 president of powers. He calls vote illegitimate. // Sacramento Bee

Women firefighters call for Chief Terrazas’ resignation, citing lack of ‘accountability and action’ in LAFD. // LAist

Former Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa: ‘Rome is burning.’ // NBC Los Angeles

California #MeToo leaders say Capitol’s sexual harassment unit is too close to the Legislature. // Sacramento Bee

Trouble in the Crime Lab: Questions arise amid ‘Mean Girls’ atmosphere. // San Diego Union-Tribune

State authorities destroy 1 million marijuana plants in crackdown on illegal operations. // Los Angeles Times

Court: Parts of pesticide program violate California law. // Associated Press

How a prescribed burn in Santa Cruz County got out of control. // San Francisco Chronicle

Parking fines no longer pay Los Angeles’ bills. // Crosstown

San Jose has no funding to expand permit parking program. // Mercury News

They lost the first battle for San Diego’s sports arena site. Now they’re mounting a comeback. // San Diego Union-Tribune

LAUSD says it’s hiring 922 mental health workers. 75% of the positions sit empty. // KCRW

In Los Angeles, glimpses of an oasis with immigrant roots. // New York Times

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...