Credit: Karla Scoon Reid / EdSource
Parents participate in setting priorities in an LCAP planning meeting at Correia Middle School in San Diego Unified in April 2014.

The Legislature has granted county offices of education an extra month, until Sept. 15, to approve school districts’ annual budgets. The effect will be to ease some of the pressure on the counties to review districts’ local accountability plans, a new responsibility coinciding with the budget approval process, that many were hard-pressed to do effectively.

County education officials requested the additional time, which was tucked into the trailer bill, a catch-all bill accompanying the state budget, which lawmakers passed last month.

The state’s 58 county education offices are charged with approving both the districts’ annual budgets to ensure they’re financially sound and their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which lay out how districts will spend money and take other actions to meet school and student achievement goals required under the state’s new funding formula.

Districts must approve budgets and LCAPs together by July 1, the start of the fiscal year. That makes sense since they are related. However, the Legislature unwittingly had put county offices of education in an “untenable” position two years ago when, in passing the new funding formula, it failed to integrate the timeline for the two approval processes, said Terena Mares, deputy superintendent of business services for the Marin County Office of Education. She also serves on the committee of county education administrators who provide guidance on LCAP and funding issues.

County offices have until Oct. 8 to sign off on districts’ LCAPs after a series of prescribed comment periods. But last year, the first year districts were required to create LCAPs, counties had an Aug. 15 deadline for approving districts’ budgets. It became the de facto deadline for also passing an LCAP, and many counties rushed to get the LCAPs completed, Mares said. “It was crazy last year – approving budgets while seeking written clarification of LCAPs at the same time,” she said.

The alternative was for county offices to grant districts a conditional budget on Aug. 15, to buy tuime to resolve questions about an LCAP. The Los Angeles County Office of Education did that last year with L.A. Unified, until passing both the budget and the LCAP three weeks later. But both county offices and districts agreed that conditional budget approvals are appropriate only for financial issues, not for LCAP-related matters, Mares said.

The Sept. 15 budget deadline will give county offices time to do a more comprehensive LCAP review.  Large counties with dozens of districts and rural counties with small school districts, where one administrator on vacation in July can hold up approval, will benefit the most, Mares said. LCAPs are already more complex this year, she said, because they include an update in which districts are required to cite progress toward meeting last year’s goals.

The Legislature had another gift for county offices in the budget: a two-year, $40 million allocation to counties to hire more people to monitor and review LCAPs. It technically is a one-time appropriation that Mares hopes will become an ongoing expenditure. The role of county offices will expand as the LCAPs become a key element of the state’s K-12 accountability system, which the State Board of Education is expected to adopt in stages in the next two or three years.

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