An EdSource survey of a sampling of county offices of education found that they approved nearly all school districts’ inaugural Local Control and Accountability Plans, laying out spending and academic priorities under the state’s new funding formula, by the Aug. 15 initial deadline for the review.
According to the survey of the county offices, which encompass about half of the state’s 1,000 school districts, 96 percent got the OK on their LCAPs. Only 21 out of 524 districts had LCAPS that were returned to them for changes or clarifications after the cutoff; one of those was Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district (see previous story). However, hundreds of districts had already made minor and substantive changes at the request of their county offices of education, either in early drafts or in the weeks preceding the deadline.
Among those receiving LCAP approval were the seven districts that EdSource followed throughout the LCAP process: East Side Union High School District, Merced City, Natomas Unified, San Bernardino Unified, San Diego Unified, Santa Ana Unified and West Contra Costa County Unified.
County officials generally praised the LCAP creation and approval process under the new accountability system the Legislature created last year when it passed the Local Control Funding Formula. “We saw some pretty terrific work coming out of districts,” said Mary Barlow, associate superintendent of Kern County, with 47 school districts. “We felt they took this seriously and did an excellent job with the opportunity for local control.”
That was Gov. Jerry Brown’s and the Legislature’s intent in giving districts more authority over spending. But in doing so, they required districts to get suggestions from parents, teachers and the community regarding their proposed plans. The Legislature also required districts to detail that outreach and address eight priorities mandated in the LCAP. Those include raising student achievement, as measured by access to college courses and career training, and improving test scores. They also include new measures of student engagement, school climate and parent involvement. Since the funding formula provides extra money for high-needs students – low-income students, students learning English and foster youth – districts are required to break out the services they will provide for them and their costs.
County offices already monitor districts’ finances to see that they remain solvent, so it made sense for the Legislature to turn over LCAP approval to them. A district budget and the LCAP are supposed to reflect the same priorities.
Pressure to pass by Aug. 15
School boards were required to pass their LCAPS, after at least one public hearing, by July 1. County superintendents have until Oct. 8 to sign off on them or, failing that, send in experts to help. But counties and districts viewed Aug. 15 as the real deadline because that is the deadline for counties to approve districts’ budgets. Counties can’t do that under the new funding law without first approving an LCAP.
As a result, counties and districts felt pressured to complete the work by the August deadline. Angelica Ramsey, chief academic officer for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, said she worked the night of Aug. 15 to see if the last of 31 districts could make changes needed for passage. That didn’t quite happen, and the Los Altos School District, like the other 19 without approval, received a “conditional budget approval.”
EdSource’s review of 17 of 58 county offices of education encompassed 524 of the state’s nearly 1,000 school districts. Twenty-one districts’ LCAPs weren’t approved by Aug. 15, about 4 percent. Ten of the 17 county offices passed every district’s LCAP by the deadline. Sonoma County withheld approval of nine of 40 districts’ LCAPS, about 23 percent.
“Everyone agreed this was a learning year,” said Karen Monroe, associate superintendent of education services at the Alameda County Office of Education. “The bar will be raised in years to come.”
Finance experts can only speculate about whether a conditional approval of a budget will affect how bond rating agencies and others who evaluate a district’s financial condition make their assessments. “Who knows what impression that leaves?” said Judy Thomson, director of fiscal services for the Sonoma County Office of Education. “That’s why everyone was trying to get the approvals done by Aug. 15.”
Joel Montero, the chief executive officer of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, the state agency responsible for keeping districts out of financial peril, wrote in an email, “In my view a conditional (budget) approval should not create practical problems.” Districts may be feeling “some level of angst” at not getting outright budget approval, he wrote, but “the perception of school district folk is that rating agencies give two hoots about a conditional approval of a budget. The reality is, in my experience at least, they really don’t.”
Guidance manual for counties
Districts also had feared that counties might second-guess their spending decisions. At the same time, civil rights and children’s advocates, who had called for tight regulations on funding for low-income students, foster youth and English learners, were worried that counties wouldn’t scrutinize LCAPs enough. In seeking a balance, the State Board of Education said that counties should see that districts comply with the law and regulations but not micromanage the LCAPs. The California County Superintendents Educational Services Association reinforced that notion in its 45-page manual, which most county offices used. The county’s role “is not to make a judgment” whether one program is better than another, the manual said. For instance, in addressing the need for improving school climate, a district has the say on hiring more cops or counselors.
Under state law, counties must post on their websites their districts’ LCAPs, revisions and letters of approval.
Many technical, substantive fixes
The Merced and San Bernardino county offices sought no clarifications before approving all of their districts’ final LCAPs. The Sacramento, Kern and Alameda county offices sent back all or nearly all of their LCAPs, seeking at least one piece of information. Alameda County, which prepared a three-page document detailing what it sought from every district, asked for a dozen clarifications from New Haven Unified, covering most sections of its LCAP.
Sacramento City Unified’s revisions are an example of a thoroughly vetted LCAP. It includes a new section on the Next Generation Science Standards (page 14), a commitment to increase parent participation each year in a district survey (page 21) and more details on how the district planned to spend money for high-needs students (pages 43-44). The school board approved it last month.
Many county offices’ questions pertained to missing data or metrics, which district staff were able to address before the Aug. 15 deadline. Problems that needed to be fixed included citing goals for improvement for the first year but not the next two years or failing to connect new programs and expenditures with state priorities. The layout of the LCAP template contributed to confusion; recognizing this, the state board is redesigning the template.
Many districts didn’t include middle school dropout rates and didn’t distinguish between chronic absenteeism and truancy rates (the former includes excused absences and suspensions), said Diana Asseier, chief academic officer for Riverside County. An examination of 80 LCAPs by Children Now and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, California found that more than half either ignored chronic absenteeism, a required metric, or failed to set goals to reduce it.
County offices asked a number of districts to justify how they used money allotted for high-needs students for districtwide or schoolwide purposes. That issue has been the biggest point of contention with children’s advocacy groups, which have called for tighter restrictions.
Ducor Union Elementary School District, a district with a single K-8 school in the Central Valley, presented the Tulare County Office of Education with a different challenge. A majority of its school board dislikes the Common Core standards and so the district ignored the LCAP priority requiring a plan to implement them, said Tulare County Deputy Superintendent Guadalupe Solis. Local adoption of Common Core technically is not a state mandate. However, districts that don’t adopt it must adopt another comprehensive set of standards. And their students still must take standardized tests based on Common Core, starting next spring. After discussions with the county, Ducor backed off and complied, Solis said.
Getting a head start
County superintendents and districts agreed that the initial year was challenging. The LCAP and the oversight process was new, and the schedule was compressed, with state regulations not out until January of this year. Counties with large numbers of districts were pressed to do their evaluations in the six weeks preceding Aug. 15, when many district employees were on vacation. Those counties that started meeting with districts collectively and individually months before, committed a lot of staff time to the work and reviewed early drafts were in better shape to meet the deadline.
“It would have absolutely been impossible to approve the LCAPS sight unseen,” said Barlow of Kern County, which held four all-day workshops attended by representatives from all 47 districts. Sixteen staff members from the business and curriculum areas of the county office worked on the LCAPs.
“It was not hype to say we spent countless hours” working with districts, said Al Mijares, superintendent of Orange County, which approved all 27 LCAPS by Aug. 15. “We were tied at the hip through the process,” meeting face to face with district administrators before and after reviewing their draft LCAPs, he said.
Some county offices report they are already looking ahead to next year. “I am more optimistic than I was several months ago,” Mijares said. The county met with administrators from 25 districts last week to discuss how to improve planning and communication. San Mateo County’s formal letters of approval for this year’s LCAP will include recommendations for next year.
Some county officials said they expect improvements, particularly in the area of parent and community engagement, since districts will now have a full year to work on it.
“Everyone agreed this was a learning year,” said Karen Monroe, associate superintendent of education services at the Alameda County Office of Education, with 18 districts. “The bar will be raised in years to come.”