On paper, the task seems simple enough: Put parents in the driver’s seat alongside California school district administrators as they work to develop a comprehensive plan to address state-mandated accountability priorities outlined in the new school funding law.
But making parents partners in the process and encouraging them to share their ideas and opinions is a complex and delicate task that has taken many forms in three of the school districts EdSource is tracking as each implements the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula. This month, the Santa Ana, San Bernardino City, and San Diego districts are holding their final meetings to gather public comments that will be used to craft their Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP). Under the law, the plans must be adopted by July 1.
The new funding law mandates the inclusion of parent input, but districts have been left to determine how to gather, assess, and then finally, apply that information as they develop their accountability plans.
In each of these districts, a team of staffers is coordinating community meetings and forums, plotting locations that would yield the best attendance, and ensuring translators are available for non-English speakers. They’ve met with hundreds of parents during meetings, which have emphasized listening to community members rather than having them listen to lengthy, acronym-laden presentations.
Some meetings, like those held in the city of San Bernardino for example, are streamed live on the district website. And while San Diego uses Post-it notes to compile community comments, Santa Ana is posting every concern and idea voiced during meetings on its website in English and Spanish. (Read about a San Diego LCAP meeting here.)
“Communities always doubt two things: Will you really listen to us? Will you deliver on your promise?” said Rick L. Miller, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. He said the district’s principals review and try to address site-specific parent concerns following every meeting.
The process of compiling and analyzing the community feedback is already underway in these districts as they work toward creating plans that will once again be subject to a public review before they are formally adopted by their local school boards. A San Diego State University doctoral student is volunteering to synthesize San Diego schools’ public meeting comments, while curriculum staffers in Santa Ana are conducting their district’s analysis.
Under the LCAP, districts must develop goals and fund action plans in eight “priority areas,” which include school climate, student achievement, and parental involvement. The San Diego and San Bernardino city school districts are partially relying on multi-year strategic plans that were already underway.
That process has its critics in San Diego, where Shelli Kurth, a co-founder of the advocacy group United Parents for Education, said some parents are concerned that the district may eschew the opportunity to garner new initiatives and approaches by remaining closely committed to its Vision 2020 strategic plan.
While Kurth is almost effusive in her praise for the San Diego Unified School District’s public outreach efforts, she said there’s still a nagging feeling among some parents that the LCAP will be little more than a “rubber stamp.” She added that some parents of students who fall outside the three funding priority areas — English language learners, foster youth, and low-income students — believe that their children may see little benefit from the new accountability plan.
“We acknowledge and are thankful for the effort they are putting in to reach parents but we are also skeptical whether they are hearing what parents are saying,” Kurth said, regarding San Diego’s district leaders. “We’re skeptical that they will use the flexible funding to do something better than they did yesterday.”
Moises Aguirre, the executive director of district relations for the San Diego district, acknowledged that as the school system transitions to implementing the LCAP, the district is working within the framework of its Vision 2020 plan, which the community helped develop in 2009. Still, he said the district is committed to using the vast amount of community discussion to inform its final state accountability plan.
Finally, Aguirre said he encourages the parents of all students — not solely those parents of high-need students — to review the district’s plan.
“We serve all students in schools that we operate,” he said, “and we strive to do this in a quality way.”
In San Bernardino, the city school district finalized its five-year strategic Community Engagement Plan just last year. So Linda Bardere, the district’s director of communications, said there was no need to “reinvent the wheel” while working to develop the accountability plan. Instead, Bardere said the district is working with community members to incorporate the strategic plan along with new ideas into its draft of the state-mandated plan.
Sonya Gray-Hunn, a mother of six children and a member of San Bernardino’s District Parent Advisory Council, said she’s attended most of the school system’s LCAP and Local Control Funding Formula meetings.
Gray-Hunn said the district has blanked the community with flyers, newspaper advertisements, and website postings about the new school funding formula. But she said what’s missing is a more personal approach to strongly encourage the parents of high-needs students that their voices are needed and will be valued during these critical budget discussions. Gray-Hunn said she sees many of the same faces at the community meetings.
“They’re not reaching the parents that need to be reached,” Gray-Hunn said, adding that perhaps she could have done more community outreach herself.
Meanwhile, the Santa Ana Unified School District has made small, school-based meetings a priority to ensure that parents who may not be comfortable addressing a large group had an opportunity to have their opinions heard.
Deidra Powell, the district’s chief communications officer, said her team also held debriefing sessions following each meeting to assess how to improve future community discussions. She noted that at the first meetings discussions were held in English and translated in Spanish. Later, district staff realized that that it was more beneficial to moderate some sessions in Spanish and translate them into English.
Miller, Santa Ana’s school chief, is quick to provide a reality check about the LCAP process: “Let’s all be honest. We have a very compressed timeline and no one has ever done this before. We might get it somewhat right and we might get it somewhat wrong.”
But he added that as districts become more familiar and comfortable with the community engagement process involved in crafting their accountability plans, the exercise could yield measurable benefits.
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.