Last fall, high school sophomores Stephanie Perez and Ismael Mauricio joined a contingent of students at a State Board of Education meeting demanding that students get a say in how school districts spend money.
The state board listened; its regulations for the new school funding formula now require districts to explicitly consult students before they write their annual spending plans under the Local Control Funding Formula.
Perez’s and Mauricio’s principal at Overfelt High School in San Jose listened, too, in a way that surprised them. Vito Chiala turned over $50,000 of the school’s discretionary funding to students to spend however they chose.
After a months-long campaign and a week of voting, students put themselves literally in the driver’s seat. They voted to spend the money on trips for 50 students to tour Southern California colleges, new uniforms for sports teams and, in first place, a six-hour driver education course for at least 30 students. The $9,600 expenditure will reinstate a driver education program that the East Side Union High School District once offered. Its elimination created a financial hardship for the school’s primarily low-income families, which have had to pay the approximately $300 in costs for a six-hour driving course plus a $30 fee for a written test, students said.
The top three ideas won out over two printing stations for students’ free use, after-school workshops to learn new computer skills, more outdoor lunch tables, career trips to Silicon Valley businesses and, much to Chiala’s relief, spending all 50 grand on a taco truck.
The exercise in participatory democracy was a show of faith that did not escape students’ notice.
“Last November, we went to Sacramento as part of our Student Voice Campaign,” said Perez, who, with Mauricio, is active in the East Side Union High School District’s chapter of Californians For Justice, a nonprofit that encourages student activism. “Mr. Chiala had the courage to step up, to trust us to make decisions about our (school’s) income.”
Chiala, watching as the results were announced, said, “Seriously, it made me nervous to have their hands in my pockets, but you have to trust the community to set priorities. The projects showed wisdom.”
“Even the taco truck,” he added. “It’s crazy and might not have been legal but it was bold and in the end was my favorite idea,” because it would have become a student-run business that could be used to market Overfelt to surrounding districts’ middle schools.
The students’ vote, via a computer survey, followed a year-long process of soliciting and vetting ideas from students, parents and teachers, then researching the costs, outlining arguments and taking the ballot to the school. The formal process was guided by the Participatory Budget Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that builds community involvement in local governments’ budgeting. More than a third of the school’s 1,450 students, plus a smattering of parents and alumni, voted.
Rosa De León, Californians For Justice’s lead organizer in East Side Union, said that Overfelt is one of the nation’s first schools to do participatory budgeting and could be the first school in California to allocate part of its budgets to students. She said she hopes its success catches on. Schools in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Richmond have expressed interest.
De León said that the project in Overfelt was part of the effort to involve students in the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, the annual budget and priority-setting document required under the new state funding formula. The district has held two forums for students this year, and she said she’s confident that the LCAP will incorporate their suggestions.