The Grade Blog

Thursday, Jul 04 2013 07:00 PM

Schools laud new education funding formula

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The state budget the governor just signed pumps some much-needed money to schools that have taken a financial beating since the recession, but local districts are guarded about the impact on their beleaguered finances.

"We're definitely better off overall, and we feel like this is a stride in the right direction for our Kern County school districts," said Mary Barlow, assistant superintendent of administration, finance and accountability at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. "But since 2008-09, we've had reductions every year in the amount of funding per student, and this doesn't restore all those cuts."

The state budget adds $2.1 billion in education money in the first year of implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula, which replaces a previously more complex formula for distributing education funds to California's K-12 schools.

The budget contains $70 billion for K-12 education programs and $25.4 billion for higher education.

The Local Control Funding Formula is to be phased in over eight years.

All districts will receive a per-pupil base grant. There also will be supplemental grants available, the size of which will depend on the number of students who are foster youth, English learners and/or come from low-income households.

When more than 55 percent of a district's students fall into those categories, the district is eligible for a concentration grant, too.

There's also $428 million in Proposition 39 money to pay for energy efficiency projects, with tiered funding levels depending on the district's size. The minimum award is $100,000.

MONEY FOR COMMON CORE

The budget also allocates $1.25 billion to pay for implementation of Common Core State Standards and the new standardized tests that will measure progress toward the goals. That's $250 million more than had been proposed in May.

Common Core is a set of academic standards for English-language arts and math that California and 44 other states adopted to make expectations of students more consistent from state to state.

The Common Core money, which works out to about $200 per student, will be distributed over two years. It's to help defray the cost of professional development, instructional materials and technology upgrades.

The new tests -- called Smarter Balanced Assessments -- will be administered electronically, replacing pencil and bubble sheet tests starting in 2014-15.

Only 27 percent of America's schools have enough bandwidth to administer the computer-based tests, according to EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for high Internet capacity in schools.

Schools across the state are assessing their electronic infrastructure.

It's not likely the one-time state money will cover the cost of Common Core or the new test, but it's sure better than last year, when districts didn't get any Common Core help, said Steve McClain, chief business official with the Bakersfield City School District.

LOCAL IMPACT

The tentative budget BCSD adopted before the governor's budget passed had a $4.7 million deficit, but under the Local Control Funding Formula it could be about $1 million in the black, he said.

About 89 percent of BCSD students are English learners, low-income or both.

Under the previous formula, districts received unrestricted money combined with a bunch of so-called "categorical" grants that could only be used for designated purposes.

Now, districts will have a greater say in how money is used and can tailor spending to their specific needs.

"It's really a whole new way of looking at finances," McClain said. "It gives us a lot more flexibility."

The formula was made possible in part by voters approving Proposition 30 last year. That ballot measure temporarily hiked sales and income taxes on wealthy Californians to help cover the cost of education and emergency response services.

Gov. Jerry Brown is hoping the economy will have improved by the time the sales tax increase sunsets in 2017 and the income tax sunsets in 2019.

So are school districts.

RED INK

The Kern High School District had a $20 million deficit two years ago and a $15 million deficit last year. It's projecting a $10 million deficit this year.

KHSD made some "painful budget cuts" in 2008-09 to build up reserves for anticipated hard years to come, said spokesman John Teves. The district has been relying on those reserves in the economic downturn to avoid salary reductions, furlough days or a shortened school year.

"It's our hope that at some point we will be able to make ends meet without drawing on our reserves, and with California's economic situation getting a little bit better every year, I think we're entitled to that hope," Teves said.

KHSD school board member Chad Vegas was the lone vote against adopting the district's budget last week, saying he's philosophically opposed to spending more money than you take in.

"We're not willing to deal with some of the pain right now, but the more pain that we put off the more painful it becomes at that time when you have to face it," he said in an interview Tuesday.

The final state budget left a lot of districts with red ink.

It was "maybe slightly better than the May revise," said Panama-Buena Vista Assistant Superintendent Glenn Imke, referring to the budget adjustments the governor proposed in May when state revenue came in higher than expected.

"It's at least more money than we had in 2012-13, but we're still cut, and we're still running a structural deficit," Imke said.

Panama-Buena Vista estimates the new formula will add $350,000 more than it would have received under the old formula, but that could still leave a deficit of about $3.4 million.

Panama-Buena Vista is about 63 percent low-income and/or English learner. School districts with fewer low-income students aren't going to see as much improvement in their budgets.

AFFLUENT DISTRICTS HELD HARMLESS

There were negotiations early on to raise the base grant for all districts, and those talks were successful. That appeased concerns in some quarters that the governor planned to boost spending at poorer districts at the expense of the affluent.

Under the Local Control Funding Formula, all schools will receive $6,342 to $6,845 per K-3 student, $6,437 to $6,947 for each student in grades 4-6, $6,628 to $7,154 per student in grades 7-8, and $7,680 to $8,289 per student in grades 9-12.

Each category is up at least $500 from an earlier proposal.

The Fruitvale School District, where a relatively low 37 percent of students are low-income, is pleased with how things turned out.

"We think it's going to be pretty positive for us," said Superintendent Mary Westendorf. "It's better than the initial proposal was going to be."

But there's still a hit from the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which the California Department of Education said is costing schools statewide about $260 million.

The governor had asked for $60.7 million to restore sequestration cuts to special education programs but didn't get it.

"That's going to have to be backfilled by general fund moneys, and that's going to reduce the money available for regular education," KCSOS' Barlow said.

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