SANTA ANA – After the Santa Ana Unified School Board approves its multimillion-dollar education funding plan later this month, the district’s schools will kick off their own decision-making process to detail how to spend some of that money on their campuses to improve student achievement.
These school-based budgeting discussions will likely be dialed-down versions of the exhaustive public outreach campaign the Santa Ana Unified School District conducted to help define the goals of its state-mandated Local Control and Accountability Plan.
Santa Ana Unified district leaders contend that funneling some of the $56.3 million in additional state dollars directly to schools captures the true spirit of California’s new school funding law. And they argue that allowing parents, teachers and principals to shape how these dollars will be used in their classrooms will be crucial to ensure that every student’s academic needs are met. Still, some community members are wary because they believe some needs – school climate issues in particular – aren’t spelled out in enough detail in the district’s current financial and academic game plan.
While David Haglund, Santa Ana Unified’s deputy superintendent of educational services, said he understands the community’s concerns, ultimately he believes they will prefer the state’s new education budgeting process.
“You don’t want us to tell you exactly what is going to be done at your school site,” Haglund said. “The more detail we give you, the less control there is at the local site level.”
The new Local Control Funding Formula frees school districts from many of the restrictions that limited how state money could be used in the past. Under the law, districts must craft an accountability plan that identifies strategies that improve services for “high-needs” students – low-income pupils, English learners and foster youth. Districts must adopt those three-year plans, which are instructional and financial guides, with input from parents, community residents and staff, by July 1.
By 2017, if the district’s accountability plan stays on course, more Santa Ana Unified students – about 93 percent of whom are high-needs youth – will be taking college-required courses taught by highly qualified teachers. Fewer students will be arrested or serving out suspensions at home. Parents will be actively engaged in all aspects of their children’s education, from homework to selecting high school classes. And more students and their families will have access to Internet-enabled technology (a computer or tablet) in class and at home. The board is expected to approve the final accountability plan June 24.
School-Based Plans More Specific
Santa Ana Unified’s plan currently calls for schools to receive $8.5 million in discretionary funds for 2014-15 – that’s an increase of $2.2 million over the previous year – to meet the goals outlined in the district’s accountability plan. The discretionary funds will be allocated on a per-pupil basis regardless of the students’ race, ethnicity, income level or language status. Haglund said the school site councils, whose members include parents, staff and high school students, will approve the school site plans.
Stefanie P. Phillips, Santa Ana Unified’s deputy superintendent of operations, said the school-based budgets will exceed the current allocation since the district intends to push even more school improvement initiatives, along with the dollars to finance them, down to each site.
For instance, under the district’s accountability plan, about $785,000 is budgeted to increase library access for low-income students and to provide computer training for parents. Phillips said some schools may decide they don’t need to extend their library hours and instead use those dollars to expand their tutoring programs, which also supports the key goal of extending learning opportunities for students.
Santa Ana Unified took a multi-step approach to releasing its accountability plan, which initially frustrated some community members, including school board president Audrey Yamagata-Noji, who sought a more detailed report when the draft proposal was released last month. District administrators stressed that its process, which involved releasing the draft accountability proposal in phases, allowed for public feedback at multiple stages of the plan’s development.
“Sometimes it’s better to go a little bit slower to develop a clearer vision of how to spend your financial resources,” Phillips said.
Speakers Advocate for School Climate Changes
But translating that vision to the community, with a plan that allows for more financial flexibility by not itemizing program and staffing expenditures, has been challenging. (A recent EdSource Today story examines a move to require districts to detail how state funds are being used to support high-needs students.)
During a June 10 public hearing about the accountability plan, a coalition of community groups requested revisions to the school climate portion of Santa Ana Unified’s proposal. The groups included Building Healthy Communities Santa Ana, KidWorks, the Center OC and Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.
The speakers, which included parents, students and graduates, urged the district to adopt more restorative justice practices – a less punitive and more rehabilitative approach to student discipline. They also encouraged the board to adopt stronger anti-bullying and cultural sensitivity efforts to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
The passionate group of speakers, all wearing orange ribbons, recalled bullying incidents and their experiences with the district’s student discipline programs. One parent discussed her struggle with administrators to keep her 6-year-old from being expelled for biting a classmate. Others made requests like asking for the student code of conduct to be readily available in English and Spanish on school websites.
Sandibel Ramirez, an 11th grader at Segerstrom High School, told board members she was speaking on behalf of other students who have been bullied at school when she asked the board to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. The 17-year-old said she has been bullied mostly regarding her appearance.
“It is the legal and moral responsibility for educators to make schools safe regardless of [students’] sexuality, gender or [immigrant] status as a whole,” she said.
Rafael Solorzano, a coordinator for Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, said district officials assured coalition representatives during meetings earlier this week that the accountability plan will tackle student discipline and school climate problems using several strategies. But Solorzano is not entirely convinced.
“We want to see it in detail,” Solorzano said in an interview shortly after addressing the board during the public hearing. “Are we really getting what we’re asking for?”
Collaborating to Secure Future Success
Later in the meeting, Yamagata-Noji, who said that the board and district were headed in the “right direction” with the plan, acknowledged that some actions identified in the proposal, like services for special education students, are more “generic” than others. She also noted that some priorities, such as college-prep courses and monitoring student progress toward graduation, may be “embedded” in the plan but were “a little bit hard to pull out.”
“I think the [WestEd] consultant last week said to keep it more generic, and community and staff want to see something more specific,” she said. “So we realize you are stuck in between.”
Haglund, who has met with coalition representatives, said some of the group’s concerns can be addressed outside the parameters of the accountability plan – like posting student handbooks on school websites, which is being worked on this week. He added that funding to improve school climate, and in turn, student behavior, is interwoven throughout the plan.
For the upcoming school year, the plan calls for an additional $1.5 million to be used for Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports programs, drop-out prevention efforts and mentoring, to name a few. An increase of $1.4 million has been allocated for a wide range of parenting programs, broadening the role of parent and community liaisons, and expanding structured recess programs at elementary schools. In addition to those efforts, Yamagata-Noji also suggested that the district form a supportive school climate partnership committee.
Haglund once again stressed that the accountability plan will not dictate a prescriptive approach for schools. Rather, he said it is up to school site councils to draft a school-based plan to ensure their unique population of students meets Santa Ana Unified’s goals. Haglund said it will be vital for parents and community advocates to work with their school’s leadership to create these site-based plans.
“Part of the frustration from people is that we’re not telling them how many pencils they’re going to get,” Haglund acknowledged. “We are giving them the freedom to manipulate the inputs to achieve common outcomes.”
Meanwhile, Yamagata-Noji urged the district to seize on the positive momentum generated by their efforts to engage parents and the community to shape the accountability plan.
“[If] the administration can figure out how to keep those avenues open with the key stakeholders of our community who really want to see this be successful,” she said, “I think that will make our plan even more successful as we go forward.”
Karla Scoon Reid covers Southern California for EdSource.
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.