Districts face challenge of prioritizing public input on school spending
Apr 15, 2014 | By Louis Freedberg | 5 Comments
California’s school funding reform law has triggered a burst of outreach efforts to solicit parent and community input in at least some districts – along with a plethora of suggestions about how to spend the additional education funds they will receive from the state.
But what is not clear is how these multiple recommendations – in some districts running into the thousands – will be prioritized so that they will be useful to school officials and school boards as they draw up their Local Control and Accountability Plans before the rapidly approaching deadline of July 1.
The funding law championed by Governor Jerry Brown that went into effect last summer requires parents and other key stakeholders, such as school personnel and community representatives,
to provide input into the draft accountability plan. But the law is most silent on how they should provide that input. That is in line with the spirit of the new law, which is intended to shift the locus of decision-making from Sacramento to individual districts.
But some parent advocates worry that districts may have generated so much input it may not be focused enough to provide guidance to school boards and superintendents as they come up with their accountability plans.
San Diego Unified, for example, has sponsored five meetings to review its Vision 20/20 strategic plan, and is currently in the process of holding 16 smaller meetings to discuss the district’s LCAP. Lisa Berlanga, president of San Diego United Parents for Education, attended a meeting on March 20 at Patrick Henry High School – the same school where her son is enrolled. Berlanga said that all of the information collected by the district will pose a challenge for the people who end up crafting the LCAP.
“Parents are concerned about how they are going to meaningfully use all this data,”
Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education and one of the architects of the new law, does not share those concerns.
“People are going to have to get used to a new system, and a new way of setting priorities,” he said. “I think most people realize that they are not going to get everything they want, and you can’t do it all in a year.”
He said that this is how the budget process is supposed to happen – get input from key stakeholders, then forward it to elected school boards to review what they have received and make decisions after they have done so. “The key thing is that there is an endgame here,” Kirst said. “It is the annual budget. It forces you to state your priorities.”
The Natomas Unified School District near Sacramento has generated over 3,000 suggestions from more than 1,000 people, gleaned from an aggressive effort to get community input. The suggestions are all listed on the district’s website in a file spanning 127 pages. The
list is compiled from surveys of parents and teachers, community meetings, student gatherings, and a range of other sources. The suggestions have been divided into categories such as “academic support,” “school climate and emotional support,” “college and career and student success,” “high quality staff,” and “English learners.” They include a range of ideas and suggestions, such as “better lunches,” “better Wi-fi,” and “more AP options.”
The six community meetings held in January and February in the West Contra Costa County Unified School District have similarly generated hundreds of recommendations, all written down on flip charts at the meetings, but not summarized on the district’s website. The recommendations run the gamut from tablets for every child and mindfulness/peer support programs to all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes.
The 100-plus community forums held by the Los Angeles Unified School District or community partners, along with online surveys, have spawned more than 10,000 recommendations. In its draft accountability plan released last week, the district says these have yielded budget priorities such as increased employee salaries, expanding adult education and summer schools, reducing class sizes, and increasing the number of counselors and librarians in schools, along with funding for the arts.
District officials are taking different approaches to synthesizing the materials. San Diego, for example, is working with a doctoral student from San Diego State University to compile public comments and identify themes and priorities that emerged during the district’s public meetings.
The Santa Ana Unified School District is relying on WestEd, a San Francisco-based policy and research organization, to synthesize community members’ concerns garnered at each meeting.
Following the San Bernardino City Unified School District’s final LCAP meeting on April 23, Linda Bardere, the district’s director of communications, said the school system will form a writing committee to review the public input recorded during their meetings and start developing a draft of its accountability plan.
Paul Richman, executive director of the California State PTA, said one way for parents to prioritize their input is to tie recommendations to one of the eight “priority areas” stipulated by the new funding law, including indicators of student achievement, implementation of the Common Core state standards, school climate, and levels of parent and student engagement.
In general, Richman said, the more input a school district can get the better. “It is very positive that we are seeing districts getting overwhelming feedback, because it shows that parents want to have a voice, and want to be involved in decision making,” he said. “But it is a whole new process and we are all going to have to learn together about how to make this work.”
In the coming months, the decision making process will shift to parent and district advisory committees that the law specifies must give input into a district’s draft Local Control and Accountability Plan before it can be adopted. These committees will have the chance to give more specific input than the more general community forums have typically done so far. However, it will be challenging even for these committees to agree on a manageable set of recommendations that districts could then incorporate into their accountability plans.
Kirst noted that even though districts may be overwhelmed by a flood of recommendations, “not everything has to be done in 2014.” “This can be done over time,” he said. “The board and the superintendent are in the hot seat. You approve some (recommendations), you turn some down. This is what boards are all about.”
Karla Scoon Reid and Alex Gronke contributed to this story.
This report is part of EdSource’s Following the School Funding Formula project, tracking the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in selected school districts around the state.