SAN FRANCISCO — The California Department of Education said 12% of the state’s school districts may be unable to meet their financial obligations between now and fiscal 2012.

The department’s fiscal early-warning list expanded to 126 local education agencies from 108 last June. That’s a 17% increase in less than a year.

This first interim 2009-2010 early warning list, which is based on data through Oct. 31, 2009, includes five of the state’s 10 biggest school systems — the Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Juan, Sacramento and Oakland unified school districts.

“Massive state budget cuts are crippling our public school system’s ability to operate,” said state superintendent of public instruction Jack O’Connell. “Public education in California received $17 billion less in state funding than anticipated over the last two budget years.”

Inclusion on the Department of Education’s biannual list doesn’t necessarily mean that the districts are about to default on their bonds or other debts. It’s a fairly sensitive instrument, but not very specific. It has traditionally listed both districts with deep financial troubles that have led to state ­receivership and districts that simply faced painful budget decisions that they had the ability to make.

But the list is an indicator of the overall level of fiscal stress that California school districts are facing. The state has 1,042 local districts, and just 21 made the early warning list in fiscal 2006-2007. The list has expanded by 500% since then.

This year’s warning list includes twelve schools with a “negative certification,” the worst rating. A negative certification means that current projections show that the district will not meet its fiscal obligations for the current or next fiscal year.

Five unified school districts with annual budgets of more than $100 million received negative certifications: Hayward in Alameda County, Chico in Butte County, Lynwood in Los Angeles County, Val Verde in Riverside County, and Vallejo City in Solano County.

Another 114 districts received a “qualified certification,” which means that current projections show that the district may not be able to meet its financial obligations for the current fiscal year or one of the next two fiscal years.

Many of those school districts are actively trying to stay solvent by cutting spending and raising revenues where possible. Los Angeles USD, for example, sent out layoff notices to 5,200 teachers, administrators and support staff this month to help close a $640 million shortfall in its budget for next year. The district’s operating budget was about $7.2 billion this year.

California school districts have sent out at least 23,500 layoff notices for teachers or other professional  employees for the 2010-11 school year, according to the Department of Education. It said 16,000 teachers were cut last year.

O’Connell, a Democratic elected official and former teacher, said that budget balancing is getting tougher as state education budget cuts go deeper.

“School districts already have made draconian cuts to programs and services, eliminated summer school, increased class sizes, and cut art, music, libraries, school nurses, and sports,” he said. “The governor has proposed cutting another $2.4 billion this year.”

O’Connell urged Gov. Arnold ­Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to send voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it easier for local schools to win parcel tax elections. The bill would decrease the approval threshold to 55% from two-thirds, the same as for most school bond elections.

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