AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, left, board member Monica Garcia, center, and executive officer Jefferson Crain at a January 2019 school board meeting.

The state’s largest school district on Tuesday approved an amended version of its 2019-20 school accountability plan, after a complaint was filed this summer about transparency and adequately serving high-needs students. 

The Los Angeles Unified District school board voted 6-1 to approve the district’s latest Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which must be written every three years and updated annually in consultation with parents and the community.

This was the second pass at approving the 2019-20 plan, after a public interest law firm filed a complaint in July. Public Advocates, along with the Los Angeles law firm Covington & Burling, took their concerns directly to the California Department of Education to demand that the district provide more transparency into how dollars would be allocated to ensure adequate special education services.

The state kicked back the complaint to the district and the local county office of education, ordering the district to rule on the complaint within 60 days.

The revised plan that was approved on Tuesday addressed some, but not all, of those concerns. Some board members said they reluctantly supported it.

“I hear the concerns and frustrations of the community members. I think there are a lot of questions that feel like they haven’t been satisfactorily answered,” board member Kelly Gonez said. “While I don’t feel great, I don’t know that voting no solves any of the problems that were raised.”

Board member Nick Melvoin similarly said he was voting yes “reluctantly,” saying that money for L.A. Unified’s “most vulnerable students will be put in jeopardy” if the LCAP were not approved. 

Scott Schmerelson was the lone board member to vote against the plan.

Opponents — including the ACLU of Southern California and Public Advocates — said the LCAP does not clearly show how money will be spent to improve the education of high-needs students, including foster youth, English learners and low-income students. 

“LAUSD has an obligation to demonstrate how its investments are improving outcomes and closing opportunity gaps for low-income students of color, and the current LCAP fails to do these things,” Nicole Ochi, an attorney with Public Advocates, said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Under California law, school districts must write an LCAP to show how they will spend the money they receive through the Local Control Funding Formula. The funding formula provides additional money for homeless, foster youth, English learners and low-income students, giving more money to districts that have more of those students — defined as high-needs students. 

Those students make up 85 percent of total enrollment at L.A. Unified, generating about $1.2 billion of the $5 billion the district is allocated under the funding formula. State law requires that those dollars be directed toward the high-needs students in a way that improves their education.

L.A. Unified submitted a revised LCAP on Sept. 12 and allowed for about a week of public comment before submitting a third and final version, which the board approved Tuesday, on Sept. 20. 

The amended LCAP included more detailed descriptions of how money will be spent, which Ochi said was “helpful,” and more transparent than the original version. The amended version also provided more information about planned actions to support high-needs students.

But Ochi and other critics said they remain concerned that the amended LCAP diverts money from high-needs students. 

Irene Rivera, an education justice advocate with the ACLU of Southern California, pointed to reductions in spending on support for English learners and on restorative justice, a method of disciplining students by having them work with other students to resolve conflicts, rather than be punished.

Skye Carbajal, a foster student who attends San Pedro High School, said at Tuesday’s meeting that changes to the Foster Youth Achievement program, which is being consolidated with other specialized student programs, will make the program “ineffective and inadequate.” She asked the board to vote no until the LCAP allocates spending for “specialized counselors with realistic caseloads.”

“Foster youth need specialized attention and care beyond what regular counselors can provide,” she said. “In my personal experience, regular counselors don’t always know what best to provide for foster youth.” 

Ochi, the Public Advocates attorney, told EdSource that the latest version of the LCAP is less vague than the original version but added that it is “hard to trust.” She said there are “significant differences” between the latest version and the version that was released on Sept. 12, pointing to differences in explanations for how certain money will be spent. 

For example, under the Sept. 12 version of the LCAP, $238 million was allocated toward an “increase in salaries for teachers of high-needs students.” Under the most recent amendment, that same $238 million is allocated toward “additional teachers to support A-G access.”

 “When they make that kind of a change over the course of a week, it just seems like they’re trying to avoid legal liability and not actually changing anything,” Ochi said.

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