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Nan Austin: Districts must wrestle with school funding choices

04/02/2014 5:25 PM

04/02/2014 7:50 PM

How much is too much to spend on computers? What might be enough to spend on upkeep and repairs? Should more help for at-risk students be a higher priority?

These were the questions Turlock Unified School District trustees wrestled with Tuesday night, exactly the sorts of discussions that need to go on now that funding has been released to local control.

About 15 percent of school funding comes from Proposition 30, the extra taxes voters agreed to pay in 2012. State Controller John Chiang on Wednesday unveiled a way to track Proposition 30 dollars by school district at http://trackprop30.ca.gov. The site offers far more, however, laying out all of the schools in a district with their student numbers and teacher numbers and what the district spends overall, broken down by category.

California used to parcel out education funding for specific purposes. This much could be spent only on textbooks. That much it would match in repairs. There were dozens of such pockets. School boards basically rubber-stamped the vast majority of their budgets – there were realistically no choices to make.

Here’s the hard part: Popular programs such as the arts are losing their guaranteed dollars, as well. The money isn’t going away, but it is going into a big pot, making those programs compete against one another, as well as basics such as repairs and salaries. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed dumping dollars for FFA courses in the same pot. Districts can keep FFA programs, but they may be tempted to put the money into music courses or fixing fences instead.

“Before, we had all these programs where we could only spend it the way they said we could spend it. Now, the board decides,” Turlock Superintendent Sonny Da Marto explained to student board members Tuesday night.

Through the recession, the state gave “flexibility” in using those funds, but budget cuts did not leave much to be flexible with. The real control begins next year.

For 2014-15, Turlock budget developer Lori Decker gave the board a list of annual expenses on which the district will need to decide, including unseen expenses for which no special groups are pushing, such as replacing air conditioners, upgrading wiring and repairing roofs.

Turlock trustee Barney Gordon said he approved of the district’s proposed annual set-aside of $750,000 for technology. “Technology changes so fast, you can’t do it with one-time money,” Gordon said.

But Turlock Unified is already spending millions in one-time money, plus some of its Common Core allocation, on technology, said board member Frank Lima, asking whether more money should go toward helping struggling students.

The new system counts on such questions, and on communities watching and weighing in on the choices.

About This Blog

Bee staff writer Nan Austin provides insights into the latest on local schools and education. @NanAustin

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