School board elections draw more interest in tight times. Parents don’t want programs cut. Employees don’t want their pay cut. Taxpayers want a frugal eye over it all.
This year, better times bring a different problem. More money is coming to San Joaquin Valley schools, with extra for poor kids, English learners and foster children – all of which we have in high numbers – and more local control with it.
Trustees going forward will have far more power to make real change, for better or worse. That puts a greater burden on voters to weigh their choices, giving often sleepy school board elections a wake-up call.
“It’s the biggest change in education funding since the early ’70s,” said Dennis Meyers of the California School Boards Association.
Here’s the change: For decades, state funding came in packets – this much for textbooks, that much for arts instruction, a little here for busing, some extra for repairs. There were 49 pockets money went into. Half of the budget was just a list of pockets and their contents, no decisions required. Even for the budget half without strings, most boards just took reports of what the district spent after giving the broadest of direction. Administrators led the way.
This year, 36 of those pockets have been turned out into the general fund pot, Meyers explained. Local decision-makers have a choice to continue spending those dollars for books and art, busing and repairs, or to pool them to raise salaries, bring back field trips or buy technology.
All of the above choices have pros, cons and determined advocates.
To help trustees sort it all out, the organization will hold more than 20 information sessions for school board members throughout the state. It held a workshop in Stanislaus County in September. The meetings go over the funding changes, but also touch on new requirements for community input on a plan with spending priorities.
“That’s the real strength and beauty of this (local control funding) is to put all this into one large plan,” Meyers said.
Boards need to draw parents and others into the conversation. “It means having bigger, broader, more focused discussion, very intentional discussions, to let parents know where the district is, where it’s going,” he said.
Exactly how to reach parents and community members, however, will fall to every board to decide. “The law is purposefully silent on that,” said Vernon Billy, association executive director.
Another round of workshops after the election will help new board members get up to speed, said association President Cindy Marks, who is running for re-election on the Modesto City Schools board. “Who’s going to get elected in these elections is going to have a much greater responsibility in how they work with staff,” she said. “I don’t think people realized when they were voting for Proposition 30 that it would change so much.”
As regulations come out after the first of the year, the organization will send its “road show” out again to keep members up to speed. One key element of the rules will address how tightly funding will need to follow the children it was meant to help. Can extra funding for high numbers of English learners, for example, go to raising salaries districtwide, or will it need to provide services at the schools in immigrant neighborhoods?
All of this means more pressure on school board members to be articulate, visionary and responsive, and more pressure on voters to put strong boards in place.