Opening school budget to parent input a work in progress at San Joaquin Valley schools

12/06/2013 11:08 AM

12/06/2013 11:04 PM

The extra money heading to San Joaquin Valley schools with the state’s new funding formula comes with a catch – parents get a say in how it will be spent.

A study released Thursday by the nonprofit EdSource shows parents eager to participate in the process, but not sure how to fit more meetings into their busy lives. The EdSource Parent Survey found 72percent of parents willing to give at least one hour a week to helping guide school decision making, but parents also wanted to be sure their input would make a difference and needed to learn more about school budgeting.

“I do think under this new law, school districts are going to have to be more open,” said EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg in a phone interview. Parents do not want to be “a rubber stamp,” checking off compliance boxes, he said, but it may take some district support such as offering child care or creative meeting times to bring them to the table.

The survey found students and teachers are best at getting information to parents, and Freedberg said building on existing connections makes the most sense. “These are things the district will have to sort out,” he said.

The California State PTA has made educating parents on how to have meaningful input a top priority. President Colleen You noted 57percent of parents surveyed said they were clueless about the state’s new funding law. “Clearly, this finding means we have our work cut out for us in the upcoming months,” she said.

“With new academic standards, tests and a new approach to school funding all underway, it is more crucial than ever for parents to be engaged and informed,” You said.

The EdSource survey polled 1,003 parents spanning all areas of the state and all income groups. Parents overwhelmingly said they were active in their children’s schools, attending parent-teacher conferences and school events, and gave their own schools high marks.

But there were distinct differences, the study found, between parents at different income levels. Families earning $30,000 a year or less – generally those who qualify for free or reduced price lunches – had a harder time participating at schools. Transportation and language barriers were a problem for many, as was child care. Working parents said they struggle to get time off to help.

Nearly two-thirds of all students in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties and 79 percent of Merced County students fall in that low-income group.

Those high concentrations of poor children will bring far more school dollars into most Valley districts as the needs-based funding formula phases in over the next few years. Also key to the higher funding flow are English learners, who make up more than a quarter of all students in the three counties.

Some districts have very high numbers, state figures show, with every student qualifying as low income or an English learner in the Winton and Keyes districts. In Modesto City Schools’ elementary district and Ceres Unified, 86percent of kids fall into one or both categories.

Modesto City Schools started work last week on a plan to bring parent input into budget decisions, Superintendent Pam Able said. Ceres is further along, having already met with 14 existing groups of parents, high school students, English learner advocates, community leaders, staff and teachers, said Debi Bukko, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

Though the state has not formalized exactly what will be required in parent input, “We did not want to wait until spring to start,” Bukko said. “I just take my show on the road. I have my cart and poster paper and away I go.”

The spread of committees involved exceeds the law’s requirements, but Bukko said the district wanted that. “I think it is a very good opportunity to hear different voices and get different perspectives,” she said.

Bukko said she is holding four meetings with each group: one to talk about funding changes and the plan’s eight required topics, a second to brainstorm ideas, a third to prioritize those ideas and the fourth in the spring, to gather comments on a draft plan for spending. The process will repeat for the district’s charter schools, which need their own plans, she said.

Sylvan Superintendent Debra Hendricks said her district held a town hall meeting and plans more. Presentations to English-learner and advisory committees were followed by more meetings Thursday. A team is revising the district’s guiding documents to fit the new requirements, but changes go far beyond the paperwork, she said.

“This is not about compliance. This is about service to our kids. The (community planning) gives us a chance to tell our story and provides us with flexibility that supports services,” Hendricks said.

Other districts that responded Thursday indicated a wide range of timelines and ideas will move forward before the June deadline:

•  Delhi Unified: Sue Gomes, director of curriculum and instruction, said school committees, unions, community panels and English-learner groups are being consulted to arrange parent forums early next year, all with translation. The district website will have fliers and information.
•  Empire Union: Superintendent David Garcia said a number of public forums are planned, with dates to be announced in January.
•  Patterson Unified: Superintendent Phil Alfano said the district has surveyed its parents (in Spanish and English) and plans a parent forum early next year.
•  Stanislaus Union: Superintendent Britta Skavdahl said the district is meeting with its parent groups and English-learner groups, making presentations on the new law. It held an online survey that ended Thursday.
•  Turlock Unified: Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said a district steering committee will begin work in January. Campuses are pulling together information on the eight areas. Meetings are planned with community groups.
•  Waterson Unified: Superintendent Don Davis said information goes home in district newsletters and an email address for funding law questions was set up. A town hall meeting is set for Feb. 7.

The change in funding, and the requirements to build in parent input, come in a school year already full of firsts. Common Core standards have arrived. Online tests will be tried out in the spring.

“We are in this very confusing transitional time,” Freedberg said, adding he’s seen many educational makeovers over the years. “So many reforms and then they don’t fulfill their promises. Now we have this new law. But are parents going to seize these opportunities to get involved?”

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