Paul Chinn / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris
Gov. Brown presents his proposed his FY2019 state budget on Jan. 10, 2018 in Sacramento.

In an effort to make it easier to see how school districts in California are spending their funds to improve education outcomes, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to require school districts to publish in their annual budgets a summary of the funds they plan to spend on low-income children, English learners and other high-needs students.

His proposal is contained in what is called the Omnibus Education Trailer Bill issued by the state’s Department of Finance, published last week. The bill is intended to implement key sections of Brown’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. The Legislature would have to approve the trailer bill when it approves a final budget, probably sometime in June.

But the seemingly straightforward proposal has raised concerns among school district administrators that it will create an unnecessary extra bureaucratic requirement  without contributing to greater transparency in how state funds are spent.

Under landmark reforms championed by Brown, school districts receive additional funds depending on the number of low-income students, English learners, foster and homeless children they enroll. They are then required to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan, known as an LCAP, outlining their goals and how they will spend state funds to achieve them.

Department of Finance officials said the summary document Brown has in mind is simply designed to help parents and other laypersons better understand a district’s budget and to link it to the district’s accountability plan. “This way a layperson will be able to see a district’s budgeted resources in a simple, summarized manner,” said Jeff Bell, the department’s program budget manager for education.

Ever since they were introduced, the reforms have evoked considerable criticism from advocates and others who argue that it is not possible to easily follow how local school districts are spending funds intended for high needs-students. An additional challenge is that LCAPs have typically grown into voluminous documents, sometimes running into the hundreds of pages, and are often written in dense education jargon.

In a process familiar to every school business officer, school districts must draw up an annual budget using a uniform financial format commonly referred to as SACS (Standard Accounting Code Structure). State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said that one fundamental problem is the lack of transparency in the broad budget categories themselves that districts are required to use when reporting expenditures to the state. 

“The underlying categories for budgeting and auditing are really big buckets that don’t tell you a whole lot,” said Kirst last Friday at a conference organized by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, a consortium that includes Stanford University, UC Davis and the University of Southern California. He said these categories cover very general budget items like “instruction,” “administration,” and “facilities.” Kirst said those are “huge buckets of inputs” that make it difficult to track how funds are actually spent.

Addressing concerns about transparency, Kirst rejected the notion that state government is purposely trying to hide how funds are spent. Rather, he said, “We don’t have much to work with in terms of the underlying budget categories” that make it difficult to identify specific expenditures in a district’s budget.

David Plank, PACE’s executive director, said that “developing a new system that provides greater transparency is a matter of great urgency, but it will also be a major challenge that requires cooperation from a variety of state agencies, including the Department of Finance, to resolve.”

Leilani Aguinaldo, director of governmental relations for School Services of California, a leading consulting firm that works with school districts around the state, said many administrators are apprehensive about the proposed new requirements. “There is a belief that there is already a lot of transparency, so it is not clear what the added transparency is that you will be getting with this additional document,” she said, referring to the summary document called for in the trailer bill.

“It does seem fairly redundant, so districts are very curious to see how this plays out at the state board level, and to see what the template (for the document) looks like,” she said.

Her view was echoed by Eric Dill, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District in San Diego County. “I think the LCAP does a nice job in aligning budgeted expenditure to mirror the goals and actions that follow the state priorities,” he said. “Another summary document doesn’t seem necessary when everything is spelled out in the LCAP.”

Dill, a former school business officer, worried that a summary document might be helpful to some but not to others because it will have to compress too much complex information into a very brief format. “We get criticized if we provide summaries, and we get criticized if we provide too much detail,” he said.

Jennifer O’Day, a fellow at the American Institutes for Research and chair of the California Collaborative on District Reform, said that “finding ways to increase transparency is important.”

“I agree that the LCAP in most districts does not provide a very transparent view, not only of planned expenditures but of the overall approach and plan for the district as a whole,” said O’Day, who has co-authored several reports on the implementation of the new reforms. She said the state’s accounting codes “make it very difficult for districts to align — or at least to demonstrate alignment of — budgets and expenditures to the goals in their LCAPs.”

At the same time, she said it wasn’t clear “how the proposed language (in the trailer bill) actually goes beyond the information that is already required in the LCAP.” She worried that it would simply “add an extra bureaucratic step for local districts without meeting their stakeholders’ needs for transparency.”

However, the Department of Finance’s Bell said the summary document Brown is proposing “is not intended to re-create the wheel, or to create a significant additional workload.”

“All it is intended to do is ensure that we have a summary link between the budget that is passed and the Local Control and Accountability Plan,” he said.

 

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  1. Ed Brown 7 months ago7 months ago

    A major flaw of the LCAP is no regulatory requirement for it to be complete, accurate, or truthful, as interpreted by the Dept of Education. As example, the Cupertino Union School District produced their 2016 and 2017 LCAPs with a highly promoted LCAP priority to provide iPads to students using $3 million of "free" money from a facilities bond fund source that never contained sufficient money, and then quietly purchased from the General Fund … Read More

    A major flaw of the LCAP is no regulatory requirement for it to be complete, accurate, or truthful, as interpreted by the Dept of Education. As example, the Cupertino Union School District produced their 2016 and 2017 LCAPs with a highly promoted LCAP priority to provide iPads to students using $3 million of “free” money from a facilities bond fund source that never contained sufficient money, and then quietly purchased from the General Fund despite a deficit after the election, and just a month after the LCAP budget had been approved. Evidence links it to an effort to assist the reelection of a couple of school board members that backed the superintendent. A complaint filed to force a public restatement of the LCAP before spending the dollars was denied by the CDE. Despite evidence that the LCAP was approved based on a known false funding source, the CDE ruled that the LCAP only needs to be approved in “good faith”. An explanation of deviations is required in the following year update, but likewise, there are no requirements on the completeness or truthfulness of the explanation. The current LCAP regulations only offers the image of transparency and accountability.

    The LCAP would have more value if it was tied closer to the fiscal budget with accounting standards and independent auditing. The CDE does claim the right to intervene in budget fraud, but will not intervene for LCAP fraud which is the public explanation of the budget.

    Replies

    • FloydThursby 7 months ago7 months ago

      Technology across the board probably benefits better students more. The point of RTTP was that schools would have to address and add certain services to close the achievement gap, such as tutoring the poor, and show restraint on salary increases and executive salaries to create some funds for programs to help the poor and underrepresented minorities. The union is fighting the spirit of this law pushing so hard for salary increases that there … Read More

      Technology across the board probably benefits better students more. The point of RTTP was that schools would have to address and add certain services to close the achievement gap, such as tutoring the poor, and show restraint on salary increases and executive salaries to create some funds for programs to help the poor and underrepresented minorities. The union is fighting the spirit of this law pushing so hard for salary increases that there is no flexibility in funding. There will be a ballot measure in San Francisco pushing for a 3d big raise. There was no raise for 4 years, but this was in an era of 0.5% inflation so it wasn’t horrible, and came on the heels of a faster than inflation raise, in SF. The one raise made up for that after inflation. The second surpassed it. Now there’s a new ballot measure mandating a third. It will be at least a decade before SF breaks free of the 99%/1% dilemma. All the school board candidates are terrified of the union and never say a word about this. The union axed one woman for standing up against them on a minor issue.

  2. Roger Valdez 8 months ago8 months ago

    Not only is this needed, but districts should be required to show how much revenue comes in and from what sources. State base, supplemental and concentration grant dollars, federal title dollars, grant dollars, and other contributions from foundations, etc. The public would be SHOCKED at the differences in funding among school districts!

    Replies

    • Roger Valdez 8 months ago8 months ago

      Assemblywoman Shirley Weber had a bill that would have required districts to list/show what revenue they received and the source (where they got it from). Of course, it got shot down by the big districts that get the millions/billions of extra dollars.

  3. el 8 months ago8 months ago

    I know this is crazy talk, but why not just convert the existing LCAP document into a human-readable document, instead of adding Yet Another?

    Replies

    • Roger Valdez 8 months ago8 months ago

      Great idea… probably makes too much sense to be implemented.

  4. FloydThursby 8 months ago8 months ago

    This is needed. In San Francisco, they've put all discretionary spending into unconditional, across-the-board salary increases, in two steps. There was hope they'd leave some flexibility with growth, but have actually outpaced what's coming in and are pushing for more. The benefit is disbursed to all. In many schools, non-poor whites are 5 plus times as likely as poor (free or reduced lunch eligible) blacks to be at grade level. … Read More

    This is needed. In San Francisco, they’ve put all discretionary spending into unconditional, across-the-board salary increases, in two steps. There was hope they’d leave some flexibility with growth, but have actually outpaced what’s coming in and are pushing for more. The benefit is disbursed to all. In many schools, non-poor whites are 5 plus times as likely as poor (free or reduced lunch eligible) blacks to be at grade level. They aren’t hiring tutors to help the poor blacks. The budgets are 99% salary, 1% supplies, no flexibility, and there is no restraint to make sure that in 5 years, it’s maybe 94/1 with 5 available for discretionary choices like tutors, and in 10 years, 89/1 with 10% discretionary.
    There is no restraint, and no requirement that in return for the raises the union make it easier to fire bad teachers. We are supposed to hold back on general across-the-board spending and put targeted funds into helping subgroups. That is not happening now. This is a good move by Brown.