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Parents push for more prominent place at the school budget table


parent and kids school success

Kern County parents participate in an informational forum on the new state financing law organized by The California Endowment during its School Success Express bus tour.

Four months into the rollout of the new state education funding law, parent leaders across California are trying to ensure that “local control” over school spending truly includes parents.

The law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, is a landmark shift that gives school districts more control over spending decisions that had previously been mandated by the state, and outlines eight key priorities that districts must consider when allocating their resources. One of those new priorities is parent involvement, and implementation of the law begins with the requirement that districts engage parents in crafting budgets.

Education advocates are crisscrossing the state to inform parents of their newly important role as collaborators and watchdogs. The most expansive effort is a 12-city bus tour organized by the Los Angeles-based health foundation The California Endowment, called the School Success Express, consisting of community meetings from Del Norte to San Diego, attended by parents, students, teachers, school officials and education advocates. Meals are provided, along with Spanish translations, free T-shirts and transportation if needed. Feedback collected in the sessions will be sent to the State Board of Education, which is crafting regulations for implementing the law.

Such efforts are seen as essential to the success of the new funding formula by one of its architects.

“I would turn the challenge over to parents and say, you can’t just expect it to happen as a result of a state law,” said State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. “You’ve got to get out there and get involved.”

Setting priorities

The cornerstone of the law is a spending roadmap, known as a  Local Control and Accountability Plan, that school districts must draw up to outline how their budgets align with state and local education priorities. To involve parents in preparing the budget, the law requires districts to hold a public meeting, make a presentation to a district-level parent advisory committee and, if applicable, make a presentation to an English Learner parent advisory committee. Districts must also prepare a written response to any comments submitted by the committees and approve the plan at a second public hearing.

Before the district budget can be authorized, the district superintendent or the county office of education must approve the local accountability plan, including the district’s parent involvement efforts.

As the process of creating local budgets inches forward, parents and advocates are hopeful that the new law will give them a stronger voice, but concerned that the requirements for parent engagement don’t go far enough.

For example, the law allows districts to use familiar, and not always successful, methods of bringing parents into the conversation, such as parent committees and feedback at public meetings, notes Oscar Cruz, president of the Los Angeles-based Families in Schools, which works to increase parent participation.

“Having a public forum is nothing new, but the problem is it’s never been effective,” Cruz said. “Family engagement is about changing the culture of schools, about how schools interact day to day with families.”

The law requires districts to report “efforts to seek parent input” and efforts to “promote parent participation” – measures that are too vague to be meaningful, Cruz said.

To press the State Board of Education, Families in Schools sent a list of indicators they say are an effective way to measure parental involvement, such as whether schools provide professional development to staff on how to welcome and engage families, and whether schools train parent advisory committee members on the budget process. This kind of parent involvement, Cruz said, is also included in the state education priority called “school climate,” which is measured in part by surveys of students, parents and teachers on their sense of safety and school connectedness.

Other parent organizations and education advocates also have lobbied the state board through phone calls and videos from parents emphasizing the need for strong regulations to ensure parent voices are heard.

‘Critical’ input

But the draft regulations on how districts should move forward, released this week from the state board, have disappointed advocates, including Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West, which advocates for underserved students. He says the regulations lack important detail about procedures, such as how parent committees will be formed. The state board will meet next week to discuss the draft regulations.

Parents packed a community forum in Lathrop on the new funding law on the School Success Express tour organized by The California Endowment. Credit: California Endowment, via Twitter

Parents attend a School Success Express community forum in Lamont on the new funding law. Credit: California Endowment, via Twitter

“The law would give parents a greater voice, if the law was accompanied by the regulations necessary,”  Ramanathan said. But the board has not done that yet, he said. “The state board is saying to districts, do whatever you want.” He added, “How do you have local control without real public engagement from local stakeholders?”

The draft regulations reiterate that engagement of parents is “critical” to the process. The draft asks districts to address two “guiding questions”: How have parents and others been involved in developing local budgets? and How has the involvement of parents supported improved outcomes for students?

The state board expects districts to take parent involvement seriously, said Elisa Wynne, project manager of the Local Control Funding Formula for the board. “The intent is not to have people check off the boxes,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged, the draft regulations give districts considerable leeway to develop their own standards for parental involvement, in keeping with the spirit of the law. “This is local flexibility and local control,” she said.

In these early months of implementation of the law, much remains unclear about how districts will move forward.

Lisa Berlanga, executive director of San Diego United Parents for Education, a parent organization, said her group is trying to find out who, exactly, is going to be on the parent advisory committees that will review the district’s local accountability plan. Under the law, districts may use existing parent advisory committees to review the local plans, which must be completed by July 1, 2014.

“Parents have to demand that as this new system rolls out, they are part of developing very specific plans that state, ‘We are spending this amount of money, for this school, and for this program, and these are the results,’” she said.

Training parents

Some parent organizations are using the new law as an opportunity to educate and engage parents, by staffing booths at street fairs, sending email blasts and showing PowerPoint presentations at parent meetings. The California State PTA has made the rollout of the new law its top issue.

Oakland-based Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network, founded in 2004 to train parent leaders, has coached 50 parents in the details of the new law and trained them in public speaking.

Among those trained was Oakland parent Rukiya Humphries, who was named this fall to the school site council at the elementary school her nephew, niece and God-daughter attend. “It brought the leader out in me,” Humphries said. She intends to lobby the district and school board for additional aides in the classroom and updated physical education equipment.

In November, Educate Our State, a San Francisco-based statewide parents organization, is hosting Camp Educate, a weekend workshop in Los Angeles to teach more than 100 parents how to read budgets and “how to suss out what’s really happening here,” said Hope Salzer, an Educate Our State board member.

And the School Success Express tour has drawn more than 900 parents, students, community members and administrators to its first seven stops, according to tour sponsor, The California Endowment. At the events, hundreds of parents and students have picked up a microphone and shared their ideas about what schools should spend money on. Notes from the brainstorming sessions and video comments from parents and students have been sent to the State Board of Education.

The need for parent advocates and district watchdogs is great, said Amy Redding, chair of the San Diego Unified School District advisory council that oversees funds for low-income students provided through the federal Title 1 program.

The fear, she said, is that districts will take money intended to be spent on low-income and English learner students and use it to fulfill other obligations, such as potential employee raises.

“What we want to do in San Diego Unified,” she said, “is to create a proactive, engaged parent body that is difficult to say no to.”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her @JaneAdams. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California. The California Endowment provides support for student wellness coverage, but has no input into our editorial content. 

Filed under: High-Needs Students, Local Control Funding Formula, Parent Involvement, School Climate

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44 Responses to “Parents push for more prominent place at the school budget table”

  1. el said

    on November 5, 2013 at 7:59 am

    In many jurisdictions, school board elections are TODAY. This is the first step in parent involvement!

    You may be able to find more information on a local race at http://www.smartvoter.org if you don’t already know how you wish to vote.

  2. Manuel said

    on November 4, 2013 at 11:00 am

    So far we got:

    1) there is enough information out there, but it takes a steep learning curve to learn where it is (especially when there is no way of tracking the source of many of the funds listed in ed-data),

    2) districts often deliberately obfuscate the budgets presented to the public,

    3) there is no way of understanding how resources are distributed both at school level and district level,

    4) districts do no share, in a timely fashion, the results of their negotiations with labor (from janitors all the way to principals),

    5) the public is not invited to participate in crafting a budget other than through 3 minutes of addressing their board,

    6) boards do not craft the budget, staff does, and

    7) etc., etc….

    Basically, budgets are the province of staff who are more or less unaccountable to the public and the board. If a board does not agree with staff, it can get very difficult, as currently observed at LAUSD.

    We are left with the sense that while there is a wonderful manual on the mechanics of how to report a budget, there is no similar document on how to create a budget. Because of this, the power resides with the staff, who is unelected and almost omnipotent.

    It is that simple.

    Time for a re-thinking of the concept.

  3. Paul said

    on November 2, 2013 at 7:21 am

    We run into the reality here that school districts are complex systems. The more influence any stakeholder wants, the more effort that person has to invest in understanding the system.

    The state has had a uniform accounting system for public schools for many decades. Every single school district in California is obligated to use it. It’s so specific that account purposes, names and numbers match all over the state. If you want to question, let alone influence, school spending, that would be a useful system to learn. The specifications are of course online.

    Similarly, we have the Brown Act, which regulates the conduct of public meetings (advance announcement, agenda, public comment on agenda items, public comment on other relevant matters). And to those here who allege collusion between school districts and unions, there is a sunshine law requiring full disclosure of proposed contract changes and their costs, before a school board may ratify any labor agreement. (In California, public agencies other than schools have lesser requirements.)

    I realize that parents are busy. This is why they — and the many other stakeholders, including taxpayers who do not have children but who do contribute revenue and who are affected by the success or failure of the educational process — elect school board members to manage details. If parents themselves want to get into the legal and financial details of school operation, a learning curve is unavoidable, and democracy requires cooperating with a formal system rather than walking in and expecting to get one’s way.

    I appreciate the comment about the second facet of parent involvement: engagement in the learning process with one’s own child. I always provided a plain-language nightly guides to homework assignments, made sure parents had access to home-use supports such as digital textbooks, sample solutions, lesson presentations, and glossaries, and stampef students’ papers the same day, with online results to follow. It amazed me when parents would come in after receiving a bad report, pleading ignorance and asking me what *I* was going to do to boost their children’s grades (learning was rarely a consideration). Spending a half hour with your child every night to review the prior day’s results, today’s notes, and today’s homework would be, for most families, a much more fruitful variety of parent participation. (And my purpose here is not to knock the parents who already do this. I’ve been fortunate to work with some parents who really did treat the home as an extension of the school, and my expectations for students as an extension of their own. Interestingly, the children spanned the entire range of performance levels and behavior. The common marker was progress.)

    • HL replied

      on November 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      I think the case in my district is not so much a collusion between unions and district and board in the meeting I attended. From speaking with teachers, there is much distrust of the district and board. There is talk that the community form meetings facilitated by both seek to influence parents in a back door way about where any new monies should go. Teachers and other staff have given up a lt over the past five years, and are ready to see some money reinvested in them. The school board and district have other ideas, and are said to be talking around this in community forum meetings, and walking a thin line when it comes to negotiating labor agreements beforehand in public. I suppose how one sees it depends on what their stake in the whole thing is. My point is that as a person trying to understand the complications of school financing, the LCFF and LCAP, a districts own culture of politics can make things even more confusing. There are so many levels of bureaucracy that seem to weigh in on dispensing district money, so it is hard to know what is happening in some ways. For e average parent, even with a learning curve, it is also necessary to try to learn the politics of any given district as well as basic school finance.

      • navigio replied

        on November 3, 2013 at 10:33 am

        I think local bargaining, especially combined with scarce, zero-sum resources has placed teachers and the district/board in adversarial roles. This seems to explain a lot of the distrust. This will continue to be the case as long as we treat ‘strategy’ as how big the pie is and how do we divy it up, rather than from a standpoint of student need. Unfortunately, thats a Sacramento-level decision in this state.

        • el replied

          on November 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm

          It can be adversarial, but I don’t think it has to be. The reality is that a district has a certain pot of money.

          So then the stakeholders need to get together and decide how it will be spent. There’s no reason that teachers and classified staff can’t be a substantial part of the discussion on how many days we want to have kids in school, what class sizes we want, what extra staff we want, what programs we want, and what salaries and benefits will be. The district can give teachers more money – but that may mean larger class sizes and some layoffs or unreplaced attrition. It can raise the rate by cutting days in school – but again that can lower achievement which increases stress on the staff. The district can drop the sports program – but that might lower enrollment. You can eat into reserves – but that might mean layoffs next year. You can reduce janitorial services – but that may increase maintenance headaches and mean teachers spend more time dealing with facilities.

          All of these things affect the desirability of your school (which can increase or decrease enrollment, changing the budget), affect the quality of the school day for kids, and affect quality of life for staff. A happy, respected staff is going to be most engaged in the classroom. They are professionals and they are perhaps the best suited to understand the tradeoff of a 5% raise versus 5 more kids in the classroom or the addition of a paid librarian.

          It does require *everyone* understanding and trusting the budget numbers. And to some extent, it’s essential that all teachers get access to and understanding of these numbers, not just their union leadership, so that they can convey accurately to their leadership what result they want and what elements are most important to them locally.

    • navigio replied

      on November 3, 2013 at 10:21 am

      The sunshine law regarding labor agreements is a sham. I think it may even be illegal to apply these laws during the actual negotiation process and thus the first the public actually sees of these changes is because of the 72 hour posting requirement of board meeting agendas (assuming the district even attaches the proposal). This means any and all ‘discussion’ with the public happens as a result of 2 or 3 minute public speaking slots on something that was already effectively ‘approved’ by both district and labor. Letter of the law? Perhaps. Spirit? No way.

      • Paul replied

        on November 4, 2013 at 11:33 pm

        Like any taxpayer, I share your frustration that contract proposals aren’t made public during negotiations. Nevertheless, that is the nature of collective bargaining. Premature release of proposals can create distrust between the parties. Each side must disclose which contract sections it wants to work on; initial proposal are also usually announced in press releases.

        The sunshine law for school district collective bargaining agreements is very meaningful. First, no other California public sector agencies are subject to that particular law. The Bay Area Rapid Transit District, which recently inked a deal costing an extra $69 million over four years, was under no obligation to calculate, let alone disclose, that figure — ever. Second, when we couple the sunshine law with the Brown Act, the public receives an extra opportunity to voice its concerns. Public input is welcome as early in the negotiation process as people wish, and the sunshine law operates so that the public has a chance to influence a school board’s final contract ratification decision. Ratification seems perfunctory, but it isn’t. Alameda – Contra Costa Transit District bus operators, for example, have refused to ratify two contract proposals (a) that were approved and recommended by union leadership and by agency management and (b) whose broad financial parameters had been approved by the board of directors. Nothing says that either party has to ratify a proposed CBA.

      • Gary Ravani replied

        on November 5, 2013 at 1:53 pm

        The opening bargaining proposals from the collective bargaining agent (union usually) in CA public schools is typically called the “sunshine letter.” Then the LEA (district) releases counter-proposals. These are publicly posted for a period determined by law PRIOR to negotiations beginning. It is all done under the (sometimes) glare of the public and the press, hence it called a “sunshine process.”

  4. HL said

    on November 1, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    There is now a power point presentation by the CA PTA that seeks to teach parents about the LCFF and the LCAP. One of the recommendations is that parents write the SBE to help influence and create the LCAP template.

  5. Jane Adams said

    on November 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    What specific language or requirements would you like the State Board to include in the regulations, to ensure parents receive budgets that are understandable and comparable and to ensure parent voices are heard?

    • Paul Muench replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      This is not an easy question to answer. Simple numbers can hide a lot of details. But I’m predisposed to suggesting the following requirements. If not already required, then make sure that a full and accurate accounting of every dollar is required. The report contents be required to be consistent from year to year. Any changes in report contents should require detailed explanation. We can be flexible for the first 2-3 years on this requirement. Parents should have access to all historical data. I’ve spent a fair bit of time browsing through SARCs and they don’t mean much for a single year. If you can look year to year you can see patterns emerge. However this is defeated if the contents of the report change frequently.

      • Paul replied

        on November 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm

        Do people honestly believe that “a full and accurate accounting of every dollar” is optional for California’s school districts? Or that district financial reports need not be “consistent from year to year”? Is this:

        http://www.cde.ca.gov/fg/ac/sa/documents/csam2011complete.pdf

        not good enough?

        Got money for legions of new bureaucrats to administer an even stricter system, if you don’t like the old one? Maybe a stricter system but one with a more fashionable front-end, including “chartjunk” and an iPhone (metroPCS, rather) app. so that parents could make bold decisions about school finance on the go?

        California has a precise, state-wide school accounting system. California has a law that makes all of the associated data public — just fill out an information request. California even has audit processes to catch LEAs that fail to comply.

        The problem has to do with knowing which data to ask for. Unfortunately, the size and complexity of the public education system makes a steep learning curve inevitable. A SARC, for example, would be a starting point, but by no means an ending point, for an inquiry into a school’s finances.

        • navigio replied

          on November 3, 2013 at 9:40 am

          correct. not good enough. this does not require itemization, and it can collapse things that should be distinguished into single codes. furthermore, the current tools do now allow what would be really useful (more on that in a sec).

          • Paul replied

            on November 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm

            It’s important not to confuse the reports routinely generated by a school district with the expressive power of the system of accounts, and the kinds of reports that can be constructed — albeit with a time lag and at a cost (usually not borne by the requester) — in response to public information requests.

            The school accounting system is incredibly precise. Look at the length, and the number of components, of a complete account number. This is very much a program-oriented system, with specific expenses charged to specific sources of funds. The aggregation you mention occurs at the report generation stage, not at the coding, entry, or storage or stages. Every transaction IS itemized, with reference to the source(s) of funds.

            When I was a substitute teacher in a district with a paper-based input system, I actually got to see, on the requisition sheet drawn up for each call, how my meagre $100 daily wage was allocated among different sources of funds, including categorical program funds, federal grants, and so on. The allocation varied by the day, the job, and the school. As an MBA trained in financial and managerial accounting, I found the system to be very thorough.

            Any financial data that any of us could want can be generated, since the system of accounts is so precise. It’s a question of making public information requests, ensuring that your district or COE still has enough accounting and IT staff to service the requests, and then getting traction from board members. They can say, “Hey, this is a useful financial summary! We want to see it every month. Or for every school site. Or for every program. Or for every school year.” I’ve had several successes using this approach with public agencies whose accounting systems were nowhere near as detailed as the school accounting system.

            Fundamentally, there’s no problem extracting financial data, because it is stored according to a precise, state-mandated system of accounts. There is, however, a complete lack of managerial accounting data (other than test scores by student, grade level, classroom grouping and school year), because the state neither mandates nor funds collection of (non-test-related) managerial accounting data. Want to know where a particular teacher has taught before? Impossible. Want to know who was a victim of a layoff in a prior school district? Impossible. Want to know how many hours’ experience a teacher has (often more than the person’s placement on the salary scale would suggest)? Impossible.

        • el replied

          on November 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm

          Every dollar is completely accounted for – that is done. The trick is that it’s not done in a useful way.

          You know your district has 100 FTE certificated staff from such a document. You know that say 71.4 are paid from the general fund and that 28.6 are paid from restricted funds.

          What you don’t know is:
          – what those staff are doing and what student programs they support
          – how those staff are allocated to schools

          You might have an average class size but you don’t have the ability to see that the average class size of 25 is masking math classes of 45 with a group of small special ed classes.

          You can’t even usually see what the per teacher budget is for teacher-led classroom supplies.

          I think we can do better.

          Accounting next year is going to be a bear for all our school finance folks, who will have to learn a substantially new accounting system and probably produce both something that looks like the old numbers for the Federal government plus something new and LCFF-y for the state.

    • Oscar replied

      on November 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

      A) The LCAP template should provide guidance and set goals on what is quality parent engagement during the development of the plan. How will districts know if the meetings they conduct are effective? is it enough to engage 300 parents in a school district of more than 600,000 families?

      A) The LCAP and the rubrics should clearly ask districts to report their work on how they are ensuring school practices improve to better engage parents on a day-to-day level. Are they creating a welcoming environment for families? are schools proving training to staff on how to engage parents? Are schools providing sufficient learning opportunities to parents on how to support learning? Are schools proving quality training to parent leaders in order to join school site councils, etc? etc…..

      • Manuel replied

        on November 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm

        Oscar, that’s a very diplomatic answer. Indeed, you are correct: asking 300 parents is a drop in the proverbial bucket. However, dollars to donuts that the District brass will use those 300 parents as proof that it is engaging the community and complying with the letter of LCFF.

        As for the schools providing a welcoming environment, training to staff, learning opportunities for parents, etc., all that costs money. I don’t believe that LAUSD has paid more than lip service to that idea. They certainly have not done so at the school level where the budgets are still flat. And, no, Title I, Part A parent engagement funds should not be the sole source of this funding. Specially when 83 schools out of 696 “regular” schools and all continuation, special ed, etc, schools (69 in total) do not get Title I funding on 2013-14.

        Anyway, your organization is caught between the rock of getting some access and the hard place of being a tool. Good luck in navigating between Scylla and Charibdis…

      • el replied

        on November 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm

        I don’t honestly see how a school district can be expected to meaningfully engage 600,000 families in a discussion of school finance. If each family gets its 3 minutes to speak, that’s 30,000 hours of input or 3,750 8 hour days.

        I note that districts must take public comments during LCAP development and that there is a requirement that the district superintendent must respond to every comment in writing. It is not clear to me to what extent those written responses can be delegated. (I kind of hope not – it seems to me that the point is that one person has all this in their head.)

        I can’t help but observe that if a large group of people want to make a really significant point to a particular superintendent… even a few thousand comments could make for Interesting Times.

        • Oscar replied

          on November 3, 2013 at 10:30 pm

          el…some comments:

          1) you are defining “meaningfully engaging parents” as providing more time for public comment, that is a false premise. Meaningful parent engagement is more than meetings, it is about ensuring parents have the information and resources at the school level to support learning at home and at school. is the school welcoming to low-income families? do schools respect parent leaders? etc…we have to stop solely defining parent engagement as meetings…

          b)having said that, the district can do much better in engaging families through community forums and public hearings.

    • Manuel replied

      on November 2, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Off the top of my head:

      For starters, there is a need, as Paul Muench wrote, for a standard way to report revenues and expenses.

      Next, again already mentioned by Paul Muench, every single dollar must be accounted for with as much detail as necessary as to its source and its expenditure.

      There must also be direct comparison to what funds the CDE reports in its various web pages as having granted to all LEAs (districts and charters alike).

      Before the LCFF, not all dollars going to districts flowed through the CDE (if one is to believe EdData and various CDE web pages). It is expected that the base, supplemental, and concentration grants will be apportioned solely by the CDE. If any of the remaining categoricals are funded by other agencies, then the originating agencies and amounts must be identified.

      All this information should be available through a web site that allows full access to anyone both in historical terms (monthly, quarterly, and annual) and real-time (expenses up to date). Moreover, I repeat that I agree completely with Paul Muench: the report structure must not change because it allows hiding of information. If changes are instituted, they must be additions and not deletions to the structure of the report.

      As far as parental involvement, the budget, at least at LAUSD, is “envisioned” by what are effectively highly-paid consultants and does not have any input from stakeholders (local administrators, teachers, parents, and/or students). The budget created in the last cycle was simply presented to the Board for approval with no time for any negotiation to take place. In fact, it did not even pretend to acknowledge LCFF other than to say that it could change.

      In my opinion, this borders on criminal. The budget process should be opened to input from the bottom up, that is schools need to put forth what it is that they believe they need to be run successfully. How they do that can take many paths, but the simplest is that the local School Site Council can be the body that produces the local budget, absent facilities maintenance and operations. The local SSC should include all stakeholders I mentioned in the previous paragraph. The SSC members should receive training that will familiarize them with state and federal law regarding school funding as well as historical information on what was funded in schools prior to Propositions 13, 98, et al. This should allow them to properly discharge their duties.

      The resulting budgets should then be brought together as a baseline of what the community believes it needs for a successful school system. That budget should then be compared and contrasted with what the central administration believes is needed to run the district. The central administration must then engage in an open negotiation with the Board on how to achieve the demands of the community.

      Board members must be in contact with the schools in their districts, engage their stakeholders and truly represent their interests.

      Only then will I believe that the spirit of LCFF is being complied with.

      What if district boards and superintendents refuse to get with the program? The state, through the Office of the Governor and the Legislature, must figure out a way to force compliance. They could start with threatening jail terms for contempt and/or financial penalties against board members or superintendents (not against districts!) who refuse to comply. Sounds draconian, but at the moment nobody gets punished for not servicing the children. This would be a start.

    • navigio replied

      on November 3, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Does no one else see the irony in asking for parent input as a means to rectifying the supposedly currently ineffective parent input?

      Anyway there are dozens of ways that budgets could be made more enlightening. The problem is most of them cost extra money so they have to be offset against other, more ‘educational’ uses of resources. And that’s just for districts that might bother trying.

      Paul’s comment about SARCs is right on. For years I’ve been trying to get ed-data to provide more longitudinal information and based on the same kind of data that is in SARCs. To their credit, they’ve improved a lot there, but it still takes work and they are also inhibited by what data is required to be submitted. (The fact that a more useful SARC was not mandated from the get-go makes it clear to me that our state leaders never took that accountability metric seriously).

      But to answer the question anyway, there are a few simple things that could be done to make budgets more useful:
      I think one of the best would be more ‘program-based’ budgets (where a ‘program’ is simply any way of looking at some subset of educational effort). Some of El’s comments show that its natural for people to think in those terms. I’d go off and make a list right now, but it would be pretty long (I will probably have to make a list at some point anyway). Although its possible to argue this would be too much effort, I cant imagine that districts can possibly decide on strategy without already having these things budgeted. Understanding how these are prioritized in the budget can make it much easier to ask the right kinds of questions.
      I would also extend the reporting requirements down to the school level. This will be particularly important when it comes to assessing the ‘equity’ of LCFF spending.
      Line-item expenditures (and revenues) are a must, and done in formats that are actually usable by the public (ie not scanned image PDFs that are blurry, unsearchable and humongous–something that school districts seem to love).

      A good, and current example of one of these ideas–and something Manuel kind of touched on–would be to have a ‘common core grant budget’. The state is setting aside $1.2B for common core. How is that being used by each district and school, and how much of that transition is actually being paid for with other funds?

      Generally speaking, I think even though our current ‘accounting tool’ is fairly fine-grained, it is not sufficient (or not sufficiently used in these ways). I find it very difficult to imagine that these things would not already be supported by the current system, and if they are not, we’re doing something really wrong.

      • navigio replied

        on November 3, 2013 at 10:11 am

        NB vis-a-vis the question at the end of the second to last paragraph: a school in our district is actually asking that some of the parent-raised funds be used to fund common core transition..

  6. Oscar said

    on November 1, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    To clarify. Parent Engagement is 1 of the 8 state priorities as part of LCFF. Also, parent engagement means: a) engaging parents in the development of the plan/budget AND b) improving the engagement of the parents at the school level to support learning. These two are very different strategies that districts tend to confuse – they think that having community forums and public hearings (strategy a) will meet both. for LCFF to be successful, we need BOTH (a and b) parent engagement strategies to be implemented well.

    • Manuel replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 11:06 pm

      Well, since your organization is a founding member of CLASS, you must have been invited to one of those sessions organized by United Way of Greater Los Angeles, did you get to participate in influencing how the $2 billion LAUSD is supposed to be getting under LCFF will be spent?

      After all, Jason Mandell, United Way spokesperson, said: “We’re trying to ensure that the spirit of local control is really carried out in the community…Members of the community should decide how this money is spent and we tend to think these types of budget decisions concerning the LCFF dollars should be left to local schools.” Last I heard it is business as usual at Beaudry.

      BTW, when I first heard about these meetings, I tried to get confirmation from LAUSD’s web site. No such luck. The LA Times never reported on them. Did they really take place? If they did, why haven’t these $2 billion been mentioned in LAUSD’s budget realities web page?

      And then there was the circus of the recent Town Halls where a nice tale was spun by Matt Hill, LAUSD’s Chief Strategy Officer. But, surprise, they were all about the 2014-15 year, and the audience was asked to pick 5 items from 20+ choices. Is this “engaging parents in the development of the plan/budget?” Maybe in a totalitarian country. Then again, that is what LAUSD has been for a while: a top-down organization where the people in the classroom are the last to hear the marching orders.

  7. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) said

    on November 1, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Not holding my breath. The money will disappear into salaries and no one will care.

  8. Doctor J said

    on November 1, 2013 at 9:32 am

    School districts intentionally leave out MEANINGFUL parental involvement from the largest financial decision in every district — salaries and benefits — not only of the district administration but also the labor negotiations with teacher’s unions. SOP in most districts is that the budgets are prepared behind closed doors by the “green shades” bean counters, only cursory summaries are shared with the public through fluffy PowerPoints that have as much meat as a marshmallow, and volunteer school boards have just become a rubber stamp in a process they don’t really understand the details of. To adequately educate parents and Boards about a comprehensive budget, often over $100,000,000 takes more than one or two meetings of marshmallow PowerPoints.

    • Manuel replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      To its credit, LAUSD does publish enough material that all this can be deduced. It takes a Herculean effort but it can be done. Unfortunately, all this work won’t amount to a hill of beans because the public is powerless to influence the budget itself as it is set on stone once the Superintendent gets approval.

      For example, LAUSD releases the preliminary budget for a given school year on March of the previous year. It then gets revised when the governor publishes the May revise, and gets a final revision in June. The budget for 2013-14 was released in its final form only on June 15, and the Board was expected to approve it on June 18. Do you expect more than a cursory rubber-stamping?

      Was the delay there to accommodate LCFF? No. In fact, an LCFF-revised budget still has not been released.

      Has LAUSD held any meetings to include the public? Yes, it did: but they were promoted by an organization that only included its members and the general public never even heard about these meetings (yes, they did not even bother to announce them in the District’s web site). Mr. Cruz’ organization was included, but not those who are not part of their “coalition.” Yes, it meets the letter of the law, but not its spirit.

    • HL replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      I was in a community advisory committee, likely started this year in light of these requirements in my district. The question was asked over and over in many ways: “Where exactly des the money go?”. There were bits and pieces discussed, but no solid answers. There was reference to “structural” problems in the district budget that are being looked at, but it was also pointed out that the school board and district cannot negotiate in public on these issues. The reference I then assume is on negotiations with employee unions that are not public information. There was discussion of doing a parent school finance type of presentation at a later date, but all of the answers given thus far have left many scratching their heads.

  9. el said

    on November 1, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I have no doubt that some districts deliberately discourage parent participation, especially large districts. Board meetings are downtown, during business hours, and require a herculean effort from authentic, ordinary parents to attend.

    However, I do not think that this is the case or the intent at every district, and I hope that rather than bludgeon all districts with legal sanction that we’ll have more people working on the other side of the equation – helping districts to find ways to get parents to attend, and developing some strategies and materials that can help parents be willing to take the time and figuring out how everyone can feel in the end that those parent inputs were meaningful.

    The final form of the LCAP template is going to be a big part of this. Current budget documents are basically incomprehensible to anyone looking to understand where money is going – and not going – in schools. I do not think this is the fault of district staff, who are presenting documents as required by state and federal law. Parents do not care whether a salary is paid for out of restricted or unrestricted funds – they care about what services were provided and how many kids received them at what cost. They care about whether their school received an equitable allotment of district funds and if the services that they wanted are provided at some schools but not theirs.

    An LCAP needs to be something a parent can look at and say, “That’s too much money on sports” or “that’s too much money on math” or “there’s no money for the library” or “what happened to money for field trips” or “how do we expect the science department to do labs with only $1/student/year of materials money?” or “holy cow, we expect one college counselor to advise 900 students?!?”

    There’s a strong emphasis so far on parent involvement via written documents. I think, however, that nearly everyone understands that parents who enjoy looking at and working with arcane written documents are already pretty good at getting their voices inserted into the process. The problem is in involving parents who are working two jobs, who aren’t good at reading technical documents, who maybe know where their kids could use more support but who don’t feel comfortable speaking up. This is something I’ve tried to work on in my community and I feel that whatever success has been had has been mostly accidental. If you can get parents to meetings, that doesn’t mean you can get them to ask questions or to even fill out anonymous surveys.

    I applaud the efforts to train parents to read the existing budgets, but having beaten my own engineering-trained head on the topic for several years, I think the real action is in creating better reporting templates so someone doesn’t need tens or hundreds of hours of training to read one or to ask intelligent questions about it. So LCAP template people, there is a lot riding on you.

    • Manuel replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      el, I am so sorry to disagree with you on this, but I think there is a need to bludgeon districts into compliance. Maybe a special exception can be made for small districts so you don’t have to suffer the same fate?

      As for reading and understanding budgets, I’ll see your engineering degree and raise you my terminal degree and state that it doesn’t matter what training you have if the bean-counters and their overlords want to obfuscate, deflect, and misdirect the average stakeholder.

      Take, for example, an issue as simple as Title I. LAUSD has for years spent way more on “adult programs,” direct and indirect costs than it has spent on children. Is anybody minding the store? Hell, no.

      The same will happen with LCFF as Richard Moore sagely observes. Why? Because there is no way that districts will let the public peek behind the curtain and see how much money does not go to the children.

      Here’s an example: I met with my Board Member representative more than 20 days ago to discuss my concerns over Prop 30 money and how it was spent, all derived from documents LAUSD and CDE has published. To date, I have yet to hear from her, no doubt because she is being stone-walled by staff. I have worked with other Board staffers on other issues who’ve suffered the same fate: they won’t get information out of the staff. If Board members cannot get the edu-cracy to respond, imagine how members of the public are treated, notwithstanding what Prof. Kirst says about getting active. If there are no penalties for this outrageous and disgusting behavior, how do we expect them to change?

      I too am not holding my breath.

      • el replied

        on November 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm

        Honestly, I think we agree on more than we disagree on and we just are being stomped by different ends of the elephant, to mangle a metaphor.

        The most important thing we can do here is to figure out how to make these budgets more clear. It’s not only too easy to hide money if you’re nefarious, but it’s too hard to understand and follow even if everyone is acting in good faith. With LCAP templates in play, there’s actually a very significant opportunity to make a dramatic change here. I even have started to fiddle with some ideas myself. I was struck by this article about school sports – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/10/the-case-against-high-school-sports/309447/ – and while I don’t entirely agree with it, this passage totally jumped out at me:

        Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

        We NEVER calculate or display school budgets in this way. And you can’t get those numbers from the public budget documents, at least not in my district. They’re not broken down that way.

        WHY THE HECK NOT? :-)

        I should be able to see that Acme Academy is spending 5 FTE (full time equivalent) teachers and 3 FTE aides on 500 students for its math program and that Zzyxx Academy down the road is spending 3 FTE teachers and 0 FTE aides on 500 students for its math program.

        The first thing we need for local control is the ability to assess the resources spent on the local program without getting a masters equivalent in school finance law. Your Board Member needs this too!

  10. el said

    on November 1, 2013 at 8:26 am

    As I understand it, while charter schools are obligated to create an LCAP, they’re exempt from the public hearing elements. It seems to me that this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the law regarding charter schools – that they have less direct accountability to their community and parents.

    • Skeptic replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 8:49 am

      With statements like:
      “How do you have local control without real public engagement from local stakeholders?”
      Education Trust-West must certainly be lobbying for the public hearings requirements to be for all schools.

    • Chris Bertelli replied

      on November 1, 2013 at 9:58 am

      Charter schools only exist if parents choose to send their children to them. Their very existence relies on parental engagement and involvement and if the parents do not feel empowered, they can choose to enroll their children in district-run schools and the charter fails. In other words, accountability to parents for charters is stronger than – and predates – LCFF.

      • Skeptic replied

        on November 1, 2013 at 10:18 am

        Great, the LCAP process with public hearings should then be a simple formality for charter schools.

      • el replied

        on November 1, 2013 at 10:35 am

        In addition to the fact that I disagree with your suggestion that the single decision to enroll or not is the only input parents should be legally given into a charter school, I would point out that public hearings for regular public schools are open to the full public, not just parents.

      • navigio replied

        on November 3, 2013 at 10:38 am

        Cigarette companies’ existence relies on smokers buying cigarettes.

        Without knowledge and understanding, such a decision is nowhere close to ‘accountability’.

  11. David Patterson said

    on November 1, 2013 at 7:23 am

    This article highlights the big challenge. Will the LCFF process actually be the catalyst for substantive involvement and ownership of our schools by parents and the community or will it be (another) example of window-dressing. School site councils, bilingual advisory committees, and school based management approaches to create substantive parent engagement are just three examples of efforts with similar goals that have failed. Parents are a child’s first teachers. Schools cannot be successful in educating children without meaningful support and partnership with parents. This is especially true for families that are already challenged by poverty. Yet the dilemma is that bureaucracies, by their nature, oppose and suppress participation and partnership. The parent and community participation components of the LCFF is the newest test if educational leaders, starting with elected school board members, will embrace this as an opportunity to build deep and substantive partnerships with the families they are elected to serve. I hope we are up to this challenge. I also applaud the efforts of groups like Families in Schools to promote this critical partnership between families and schools.

    David Patterson
    Placer County Board of Education

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