(Updated April 26 with a clarification from the State Board of Education.)
To weather deep cuts in public school funding, many California school districts shifted much-needed dollars away from repairing and maintaining their buildings to keep teachers in the classroom and save instructional programs from being eliminated.
Now, the state’s new funding formula, which allocates much of the increased school revenue to high-needs students, provides some latitude for districts to fix their ailing buildings too.
While there has been an assumption that only base grant dollars — the funds allocated to districts for all students — can be used for building repairs and improvements, that’s not necessarily the case under the Local Control Funding Formula’s current regulations. But what’s considered an allowable use of money targeted for high-needs students – defined as English-language learners, low-income children and foster youth – gets somewhat murky when it comes to school facilities.
Included in the eight priorities that school districts must address in their state-mandated Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs), which identify how districts will allocate their funding, is a goal to ensure that school facilities are maintained in “good repair.”
Jeff Vincent, the deputy director of the Center for Cities & Schools at UC Berkeley, said the healthy school facilities goal has “flown under the radar” throughout accountability plan discussions.
The Center for Cities & Schools is hosting a daylong forum Friday at the California Endowment office in Oakland, which will include sessions that will further explore how districts should meet the healthy school facilities goal. The Center for Cities & Schools is a research and technical assistance center that promotes high-quality education as a means to support urban development.
The healthy school facilities standard is defined under state regulations drafted following the Williams settlement, the resolution of a class-action lawsuit filed against the state in 2000 that alleged that public school students were denied equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent schools and qualified teachers. A building in “good repair” is defined as a facility that is maintained in a manner that assures that it is clean, safe and functional.
Although the Williams settlement established criteria for districts to evaluate the condition of their facilities, Vincent said there’s been very little oversight or enforcement of the standards outlined in the education code. He believes that including school facilities in the education funding law means communities can hold districts more accountable for the condition of their buildings under the accountability plan.
“In my mind, it puts [school facilities] on a platform where it will be taken much more seriously,” Vincent said.
Rules “Not Cut-And-Dried”
Whether a district allocates money for high-needs students, known as concentration and supplemental funds, to repair or improve facilities may come down to two main questions, said Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization:
- How does the expenditure meet the district’s accountability plan goals for high-needs students?
- What is the effect of the proposed use of those funds on high-needs students as compared to the rest of students?
“It’s not cut-and-dried,” Guillen said about how districts can use state dollars under the new funding formula for facilities’ needs. “But mostly, it shouldn’t be hard if districts are transparent and develop relationships with the community, which the LCAP process requires and encourages them to do.”
Districts are mandated to seek input from a variety of stakeholders, including parents and labor groups, as they develop their accountability plans, which must be adopted by July 1. Other priorities that must be addressed in the plans include school climate, student achievement and parent engagement.
While many districts are still working on their accountability plans, the West Contra Costa Unified School District is proposing an annual 3 percent increase in the percentage of buildings deemed in “good repair” and will solely use base grant dollars to fund this goal. The San Bernardino City Unified School District has proposed spending $1.7 million to help meet the facilities goal in its accountability plan.
Meanwhile, the Santa Ana Unified School District developed a five-year plan to maintain and improve its facilities. So far, Santa Ana Unified has identified almost $800,000 in projects that will be tied to its accountability plan’s school building goal. Both San Bernardino and Santa Ana are still in the process of determining which funds will be allocated to finance those school building improvements. EdSource is tracking all three districts as part of its Following the School Funding Formula series.
Brooks Allen, deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel to the State Board of Education, explained that the makeup of a district’s enrollment influences how it may use funds targeted for high-needs students.
Updated: If a district’s enrollment of high-needs students is below 55 percent, Allen said it would need to describe how the proposed district-wide use of funds is the “most effective” way to meet the district’s goals for those students. For a district where the high-needs student roll exceeds 55 percent, he said it would be required to demonstrate that the funds will help meet a specific goal for those students. He added that these same requirements apply to proposed schoolwide expenditures. However, the enrollment threshold is 40 percent.
For instance, a schoolwide program that boosts services for a subgroup of students, say English-language learners, but benefits all pupils is not prohibited under the current emergency expenditure regulations for the 2014-15 school year, Allen said. (The permanent regulations are still being developed.)
By its very nature, the new school funding formula does not lend itself to “hard-and-fast rules,” Allen said. Instead, he said the funding law places its “trust and faith” in local communities’ abilities to identify the most appropriate investments to meet the goals outlined in the accountability plan.
Randall Putz, a Bear Valley Unified School District board member, described the ambiguity inherent in the school funding law as both a “blessing and a curse.” Putz, who participated in a Center for Cities & Schools webinar on the LCAP’s healthy school facilities goal earlier this month, said the 2,600-student district in Big Bear Lake will receive a $1 million budget increase for the 2014-15 school year. About 68 percent of the rural school system’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, the criteria for categorizing low-income students.
Like many California school districts, Bear Valley Unified funneled deferred-maintenance dollars to help save academic programs and teaching positions and as a result, he said, the district’s seven schools are in disrepair. Now, deferred maintenance is part of the base per-pupil funds each district receives from the state.
“How are we going to create better physical conditions for our kids, if that’s the only additional money we are getting?” Putz asked, referring to the supplemental and concentration funds.
A Defensible Plan
Joe Dixon, assistant superintendent for facilities and governmental relations for the Santa Ana Unified School District, agrees that school districts must be permitted to tap into their supplemental and concentration grants to address their facilities needs, especially in districts with high percentages of disadvantaged students. Dixon also serves as chair of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a nonprofit made up of district administrators that supports statewide efforts to fund K-12 school construction.
To help districts quantify their repair and maintenance needs with greater accuracy, Dixon is developing a comprehensive “good repair” evaluation tool. Dixon is working on the evaluation tool with the Center for Cities and Schools and the 21st Century Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to modernizing public schools to support high-quality education. Santa Ana Unified received an $83,000 California Endowment grant to develop the facilities evaluation system.
Dixon said this newly developed tool is much different than the Facility Inspection Tool (FIT), a ranking and scoring system that most districts use to evaluate whether their schools are clean, safe and functional. Dixon calls the state tool a “snapshot” of a school’s physical condition on one specific day, whereas the “good repair” tool provides a five-year plan to address a school’s maintenance and repair needs, and includes cost estimates.
Dixon’s goal is to help districts develop a detailed financial plan that is “defensible and makes sense.” He plans to pilot the tool in a handful of districts this summer and will make the tool available statewide by year’s end.
“Buildings have a lot to do with kids learning,” he said, adding that some research studies have found that healthy school facilities can boost student achievement.
During a recent visit to San Bernardino’s Lincoln Elementary School, which once served 1,600 students year-round and now enrolls 910 students, Assistant Principal Cynthia Nicolaisen said her school is a gathering place for local residents.
“This community sees this school as a park,” she said, adding that on weekends families picnic at the school.
But the school’s field is uneven, with patches of dirt and brown grass. Thieves ruined one of its two soccer goals by attempting to dismantle the metal bars and sell them. To make do, Nicolaisen said students pile up their jackets for makeshift soccer goals.
John Peukert, assistant superintendent for facilities and operations for the San Bernardino City School District, said the district has had a $1 billion investment in new construction and modernization of existing facilities since 2004. Prior to the investment, more than 40 of the district’s schools had been operating on a year-round schedule. The final four schools running year-round will begin a traditional schedule in the fall and two new schools are slated to open by 2015.
Peukert explained that the 50,000-student district, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, qualified for state hardship and modernization school construction funds. As a result, Peukert said, the school system’s facilities are in far better shape than school buildings in other California districts.
Still, as state coffers shrunk and school funding decreased in 2007, Peukert said San Bernardino, much like other districts across the state, postponed maintenance to support academic programs, leaving some older buildings in disrepair. The district’s $1.7 million for facilities repairs and improvements includes painting, asphalt repair and landscaping.
“The LCAP will really help save this community,” Peukert said. “This new funding formula will bring equality where there wouldn’t be equality.”
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.