Long Beach Unified accused of underfunding ‘high-needs’ students

April 4, 2017

Long Beach Unified failed to account for or misspent $41 million that should have been used to expand and improve services for students receiving extra money under the state’s funding formula, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. The group filed a separate complaint against the Los Angeles County Office of Education for approving the district’s spending plan last fall.

The district is demanding that Long Beach, the state’s third-largest district, amend its Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, as the document is called, to justify how it used the money or to reallocate it to comply with the spending law.

In return for receiving additional “supplemental” and “concentration” dollars for “high-needs” students – low-income children, foster and homeless youth, and English learners – the Local Control Funding Formula requires districts to spend the money on these students.

Public Advocates said it filed the complaint on behalf of two Long Beach parents, a community group and the state chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund after the district failed to respond to inquiries about the spending. “Over the past two years, the district has received multiple letters warning that it is not meeting its obligations to equitably serve high-needs students. Unfortunately, the district has not meaningfully responded,” Angelica Jongco, Public Advocates senior staff attorney, said in a statement.

Long Beach Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser said Tuesday that the district’s LCAP fully complied with and met the spirit of the Local Control Funding Formula. If the district has to refine the LCAP’s language, it will do so, he said in an interview.

Public Advocates has filed similar complaints over the past several years against other districts alleging that they are violating the requirement for spending for supplemental and concentration funding. In its biggest case, Public Advocates and the ACLU of Southern California are contesting $450 million in funding that Los Angeles Unified had been spending on special education services for high-needs students. The district is also counting that expenditure as meeting its obligation under the funding formula for additional services and academic programs for all high-needs students.

Long Beach received $108 million in supplemental and concentration funding this year. The district can use the money for districtwide purposes, as long as they are principally directed to high-needs students, who make up 70 percent of enrollment, and effectively improve or increase services for them.

Public Advocates is disputing $41 million, which is 38 percent of the total: $17 million for Common Core instructional materials and $2.5 million in technology improvements benefiting all students and $21.4 million in districtwide staff salaries and benefits. The latter amount originally had been allotted to cover pension obligations, Public Advocates said, but, when challenged, the district shifted the money to a broad category of “supplemental education supports.”

Steinhauser said that much of the supplemental and concentration funding has augmented budgets of high-poverty schools, and has been used for expenses such as Chromebooks for parents to work with their children. Details can be found in links to school site budgets, he said. Positions for literacy teachers in early grades, counselors and Advanced Placement teachers in upper grades have been targeted to those schools as well. To spell out all of the details would turn a 159-page document into 1,000 pages, Steinhauser said.

He also said that yearly increases in the pay scale are an appropriate use of supplemental and concentration dollars to retain senior teachers in high-poverty schools – and are a reason why Long Beach has no teaching shortage.

But Jongco said that if that’s true, the district must explain how the retention money was targeted to high-needs schools, not all teachers, and whether this was new or old spending. The district offered no justification for suddenly shifting money, she said.

Unlike many districts, Long Beach gives a full breakdown in its LCAP on how it spends basic, supplemental and concentration dollars. The law doesn’t require a detailed itemization ­ – one of the primary criticisms of advocacy groups for students. Although Long Beach does that, Jongco said it’s vague on how it uses the money, mixing together many expenditures under the same heading. “The district has the burden of explaining the growth in services for high-needs students,” she said. If it’s not transparent, how are parents to evaluate effectiveness, she asked.

Steinhauser said that in the next LCAP, Long Beach will summarize its supplemental and concentration spending in a two-to-three page “cheat sheet” to make it clearer how it’s using the money.

The district has 60 days to answer the complaint. If Public Advocates is not satisfied with the response, it can appeal to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson before deciding whether to file a lawsuit.

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