Nan Austin

On Campus: Real local control depends on local grasp of school needs, possibilities

School districts are busy gathering community input for a second year of budgeting tied to local priorities. Last week, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report with some well-deserved criticisms of the way the state form lays out the information.

Look on any district website and there should be a three-part Local Control Funding Formula template (look for “LCAP”) laying out district priorities, the plan for how they will be met and what those improvements will cost. The three sections, however, largely repeat themselves, and the plans tend to spout educational ideas as much as concrete proposals.

Some districts have gone the extra mile to make their budgeting process more comprehensible.

Modesto City Schools has a “Reader Friendly Version” as well as the teeny-print state template. Sylvan Union School District has developed a clean, multiyear view of budget numbers. Those undeterred by spreadsheets can see it as the Item 11 attachment on Sylvan’s Jan. 17 board agenda or as a PDF at www.modbee.com.

What the state analyst’s office took issue with, however, was less the tough read and more the conceptual failings of the state process.

The executive summery notes the statute requires districts to set goals and actions for eight state priority areas; track progress using 24 state measures plus any local ones; and set specific goals for 12 student subgroups, as well as each of the districts’ schools, for every priority area.

Almost nobody did it all, the analyst’s office found. Beyond the sheer complexity, there was also no requirement to separate the new plans from what they already had done. The report found clarity especially lacking on what would improve for English-learners.

“Without such differentiation, we could not determine whether districts were using the new funding generated under (the new funding formula) to pursue new actions to improve performance or to continue or expand prior activities,” the summary says.

And that, I’d like to point out, is the experts saying they were baffled.

The analyst’s office suggestions: Emphasize strategic plans over listing the details; require entries to note what is new and what is ongoing; monitor English-learner information; and share forms that work better.

A new form is coming, adopted in September, that eliminates some duplication, but it will not address all the concerns of the analyst’s office.

The concept of requiring use of community priorities in budgeting waved a bold flag for democracy. But the rollout has some serious wrinkles.

My top concern is that community desires have been applied to existing services that go on unchanged, or restated as institutional priorities only tangentially related to what community members asked schools to provide.

For example, “student achievement” is a key target area. Every community wants more students to do better, but in LCAPs that mostly translates to more training for teachers, or teacher collaboration, and the money goes to paying teachers for time outside the classroom. Some have stretched teacher support to mean better oversight and guidance for teachers (i.e., more administrators) and keeping high-quality teachers (i.e., raises).

Great teaching is the most important in-school component of student learning, so training and valuing teachers and giving them ongoing support may well be the best way to boost achievement. But how much staffing costs rise without lowering class sizes or providing more services students is something to watch.

Also, that “in-school” qualifier speaks volumes. How much great teaching does it take to overcome having a home with only beer in the refrigerator, where night sounds are fighting adults rather than crickets, and a toothache gets an aspirin and get-tough lecture rather than a filling?

Out-of-school factors account for much of what researchers know short-circuits student achievement. To address those outside factors, some districts have used LCAP priorities to give more help to students whose home support falls short, things parents and pastors advocated for in those community input sessions.

More after-school programs, expanded mental health services and grief counseling are among the support for children being added. Summer school, where kids continue to get nutritious meals and books to read, will reappear in several districts in June, according to their LCAP plans.

Funding for most districts in this region will rise again next year, meaning communities can lobby for more such out-of-the-box support. They can do that even without fully understanding this year’s tough-to-read form.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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