June 14, 2014

Modesto area school districts plan spending; teacher training, technology gain most

School districts this month are approving the community-prioritized plans for spending. Most dollars go to training teachers and bringing in more technology, but every plan has its own focus and a few new ideas to help high-needs students and better connect with families.

In all the hoopla over the Common Core State Standards, relatively little notice has been paid to an arguably more fundamental change happening in California schools this coming year: how they spend their money.

For the first time, districts had to ask communities to weigh in on financial decisions, had to show how those priorities will be met and how to grade what works.

This month every district must sign off on its LCAP (pronounced L-cap), officially the Local Community Accountability Plan. On Monday, the Modesto City Schools Board of Education will vote on its LCAP.

“It’s an incredibly aggressive plan,” said MCS Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson, who spearheaded the plan’s development. “We’re jumping into the deep end of the pool. We’re not tiptoeing in.”

The plan lays out a lot of detail, she noted, for new programs and services and their cost and accountability. “It’s always been interesting to me to see the board voting on something that costs a quarter of a million dollars and nobody asks a question. But with LCAP, the way it’s laid out is much more transparent, and I think that’s what the state wants,” Johnson said.

Parents set priorities

Like other San Joaquin Valley districts serving high numbers of poor children and English learners, Modesto City Schools will get millions more to help those children and have a great deal of choice in how that money is spent.

All districts were required to hold public meetings. Modesto met with community groups, the Inter-High Student Council, its unions and English learner committees, and held community workshops at its four junior highs.

“What surprised me was how consistent people were. What I want for my own child as a parent were at the top,” Johnson said. “We asked two questions: What skills do you want your child to have, and how do you think we can get there?”

Looking at a range of local districts, teacher training and technology will take the most money. Beefing up ag and career courses, returning music and art, and athletics – all seen as improving attendance as well as achievement – were priorities.

Extra help for struggling students is spread over a range of programs. Many districts added mental health services, restored counselors and a focus on positive ways to get students back on track instead of just suspending them. Encouraging low-income families to participate with more training, classes and computer access were on lots of lists.

Safety was a priority. Ceres Unified School District will add a high school police officer and Turlock Unified is considering it. Patterson Unified will develop its own security force, starting with three unarmed guards, to handle everyday problems, said Superintendent Phil Alfano. Waterford Unified plans a campus security liaison for its junior high. Modesto will add a parole officer for its Elliott Continuation High School.

Each district had distinctive elements. Turlock will spend nearly half its allotment on technology, including devices, infrastructure, staff training and tech support. Remediation will focus on math and enable teens falling behind to take concurrent adult school classes. The district will add an apprenticeship program and offer a life skills course with study skills, health messages and anti-bullying strategies. The district also adds one no-cost item, volunteer chaplain services, at its highest-needs schools.

The Sylvan Union district carved out additional support for special education students, but it will spend the bulk of its extra funds on adding and training teachers, and more technology, notes its LCAP, up for adoption June 24.

Ceres has more help for foster youths and augmented summer school and after-school programs in its plan, being voted on June 26. Waterford spent the largest chunk of its money on more teachers to lower class sizes. The Empire Union district will give a large portion of its money to schools for programs and activities.

Denair Unified, still emerging from near-bankruptcy, plans to provide Spanish, drama, choir and band courses, train teachers and add computers for parents to use at school offices in its LCAP, to be voted on June 26. It accomplishes those things without more money, said Superintendent Aaron Rosander. Denair, with relatively few poor students and English learners, was among the handful of districts in this area that will not benefit from the state’s new local control funding formula.

In Modesto elementary schools, about 85 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Across the district’s sprawling high school territory, at least 58 percent of teens are considered low-income. Together, these children bring $18 million more to the 2014-15 district budget, on top of $7.5 million in higher base funding as the state evens out what it pays per child.

$25.5 million more

All told, Modesto has $25.5 million more to spend this year, and it has laid out its plan to do that in an official document the Stanislaus County Office of Education will review and send to the state. The form, and a color-coded summary, are available on the district website,

A Modesto Bee analysis, viewable at, divided the district’s spending into roughly $14 million on extra help and high-interest programs for students, $6 million on teacher training, $5 million on technology, $2.5 million on campus safety and $2 million on family services and outreach. The total includes some other funding kicked in by the district.

Within those categories were new ideas and programs and renewed support for programs losing their targeted state funding such as FFA ag classes, career education courses, the AVID to-college support program and Healthy Start. Work experience coordinators will be added at high schools. More nurses and health clerks and mental health counseling will available.

Training for staff on positive ways to improve behavior, working with different cultures and very poor families will be expanded. A foster youths liaison will be added under the plan, as will parent classes, including cultural assimilation help for new immigrants. Remedial offerings will expand. The fast-track online program for teens who failed courses and fell behind will move from Beyer High to the district’s Reno Avenue facility under the new name G230 (230 credits are needed to graduate).

Parent orientation before school starts will come to elementary campuses. Bringing back visual and performing arts, art appreciation and providing more string instruments will be among the wishes fulfilled, according to the plan. Summer school in 2015 will expand to have one-week academies, under the plan.

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