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  • Tony Wold, Ed.D.

The Real Story of CA School Funding – A Cautionary Tale (Part 2: The “Intent”)

10-minute read time

The movement for local control is not an unfamiliar idea to Americans but the intent may not always obtain the desired results as others place their input and influence into the recipe. In the last post of this blog, we took a journey through the legislative solutions and some of the impacts these changes had on the level of funding per pupil over the last 40 years. Every reform concept begins with an idea and the intent behind it. Unfortunately, intent and implementation only share the first letter of each word. Somehow, implementation can absorb the word "intent" and then adds more letters to change the entire meaning. This post investigates what was said during the enactment of the policy to get it passed.

What is presented to the public at the time of adoption may not align with what the rules and regulations ultimately created; that fact is why this article is being written. The public does not follow all of the trailer bills and California Department of Education interpretations, but they do remember what they thought they heard, and when things are not aligned in the eye of the public, and school boards, both are quick to blame “mismanagement” as the reason funding was not allocated in the ways "they" wanted or thought it would happen.

Working in public schools for the last 30 years I have grown accustomed to the financial requirements of creating and maintaining a budget. Back in 2007, the State of California provided unprecedented increases in ongoing funding under then-Governor Gray Davis. Almost immediately, however, the economy contracted, and mid-year cuts were called for in early 2008. This led to a recall election, and then later, after a brief surreal time, the re-election of Jerry Brown to the Governor position.

“Without a budget in place that addresses our $19 billion budget deficit, every day of delay brings California closer to a fiscal meltdown. Our cash situation leaves me no choice but to once again furlough state workers until the legislature produces a budget that I can sign."

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, July 28, 2010

School districts, however, were significantly impacted by the “great recession” that followed, and most endured significant cuts to programs, reduction of salaries, and furlough days, and did not have any employee compensation increases of any significance from the 2008 – 2009 school year all the way through the 2013 – 2014 school year. This was a seven (7) year period where the cost of living (COLA) increased yearly, but funding for schools stayed below that 2007 level.

Governor Jerry Brown

Governor Brown moved the State to a new Educational Funding formula which provided a base grant, and then augmented that funding with supplemental funding for all districts that had students who were socioeconomically disadvantaged, foster youth, homeless, and English language learners with a total unduplicated count. Finally, the formula provided concentration grant funding to those districts that had over 55% of students meeting the unduplicated count criteria. The LCFF funding created a goal to return the state to the level of funding in 2007 per student and each funding the “gap” toward that goal until they "met" the goal in 2019 – 2020.

“I’m signing a bill that is truly revolutionary. We are bringing government closer to the people, to the classrooms where real decisions are made, and directing the money where the need and the challenge is greatest. This is a good day for California, it’s a good day for school kids, and it’s a good day for our future”

Governor Jerry Brown, July 1, 2013

The movement for local control is not an unfamiliar idea to Americans but the intent may not always obtain the desired results as others place their input and influence into the recipe. In a society where 256 characters can be a full speech, attention spans are very short and the sound bite can be all that anyone remembers.

Governor Brown had watched the State overspend and create a “wall of debt” that, under his watch, was reduced element by element. In addition, the State began to create a reserve “rainy day” fund that will reach over $30 billion dollars at the end of this upcoming fiscal year (2022 - 2023).

The hallmark of Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was local control. The goal was that public schools and municipalities should have the flexibility to make local decisions without onerous oversite. Governor Brown made it very clear what he believed was the role of government in exit interviews in 2019 with Meet the Press, NPR, and others as he transferred power to incoming Governor Gavin Newsom.

“We have too many damn laws."

“The Democratic constituencies want more money and more laws. I take a different view. The coercive power of the state should be invoked sparingly."

“I’ve always been saying, ‘Watch out, we’re about ready to go over the cliff.'”

“I wouldn’t be in a bit surprised if we’re already in a recession, but it won’t really be noticed for another four of five months.”

“I’d say we’re in contentious times and for too many rules, too many constricting mandates, and probably too much spending.”

As he ended his last term due to the California Term limits, Governor Brown had some advice for his Lieutenant: “Incoming Governor Newsome will have a challenge keeping the party in line because he’s got to please some of these groups enough of the time to still be viable as a political leader.”

Time of Transition

The upcoming recession predicted by Governor Brown was indeed on the horizon as Governor Newsome, in January 2020 projected shortfalls in the budget that could impact public education. Just a couple of months later, in March 2020 California schools had to close in-person instruction due to rising Coronavirus cases. At the time, no one would have imagined that the closures would last into the next school year, with many students not returning in person until the fall of 2021. In the current year, public schools have been open from the first day of school with quarantine and safety protocols that have challenged the traditional school year. As a result, students have not had a “regular” school year for three consecutive years.

Immediately, on March 19, 2020, Governor Newsome issued Executive Order N-33-20 directing all residents immediately to heed current State public health directives to stay home, except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure sectors and additional sectors as the State Public Health Officer may designate as critical to protecting health and well-being of all Californians. With this declaration, K-12 education, and the employees within school districts were deemed “essential workers.”

“Workers supporting public and private childcare establishments, pre-K establishments, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of distance learning, provision of school meals, or care and supervision of minors to support essential workforce across all sectors."

Executive Order N-33-20

The Federal Government quickly followed with the enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed on March 27, 2020. The California Department of Education provided guidance to school districts including the following: “The act provided states with both funding and streamlined waivers to give necessary flexibilities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Both the Assessment and Accountability Flexibility Waiver, as well as the Funding Flexibility Waiver, have been approved by the California State Board of Education”

These one-time funds, which subsequently were received in several more rounds of funding as the pandemic continued into a second year under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER I, ESSER II, and ESSER III) “will provide local educational agencies” with the emergency relief funds to address the impact COVID-19 has had and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools across the nation.

During a time of crisis, the intent of Governor Newsome (who continues to channel Jerry Brown), and the U.S. Congress was to support public schools, and by declaring employees in public education as essential workers, to continue to provide services during the pandemic. These funds came right as another recession was just about to reduce funding to California public schools and these one-time funds became a lifeline that maintained the employment of teachers and support staff and provided support for students greatly impacted by the pandemic.

Employees in Public Schools were declared Essential Workers. The State Legislature went as far as mandating no reductions for multiple classifications of employees citing the funding that was being received from the CARES and ESSER sources. Clearly, the funding was supposed to be flexible. Buoyed by these funds, and legislation in California that limited school districts from releasing employees in several classifications school districts were shifted to provide services to the community, especially in the area of delivering meals. One East Bay District was distributing half a million meals every week during the height of the pandemic and school closure to the point that the line of cars waiting for their weekly box of meals stretched several city blocks.

“The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”

Margaret Chase Smith

The Challenge of Being the Chief Business Official in Public Schools

The administration of a public-school budget is complex with a myriad of regulations, requirements, and compliance issues to navigate. This herculean challenge is even more critical when it is recognized that school districts are service organizations, and those services are performed by highly qualified employees. The demand for these services continues to expand, to the point where approximately 85 – 90% of all funding is expended on personnel costs. In public education, most of the district leadership are Certificated administrators. This means they started in a teaching or Pupil Support Services role, moved up to Principal, and then to the district office. The complexity of school business, however, requires additional skills in the process, procedure, and rules of financial accounting. Often, these employees are Classified, with strong technical skills, but were not ever in the classroom. The challenge is for the CBO to be able to bridge this divide to provide clear and understandable information about the district budget to all stakeholders.

Often, elected school boards, who are responsible to the stakeholders who elected them, question almost every service contract that comes before them. This questioning comes from those individuals who provide service in the district, with the question of why can’t the money for that contract be used for the hiring of employees? These are where some of the challenges of the work on the Technology and Business sides of districts require a skill set that is very difficult to recruit and retain district classified staff to support these critical activities. The untold truth when you hear them saying "keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible" is that the reduction of positions or services in business, human resources, and technology can generate greater harm to the ability of a teacher to serve in the classroom than most people ever realize.

The real question, however, should be what do we want our employees to be doing? And have we provided them the tools necessary to do their job? If we are to hire a carpenter, we understand that they must purchase hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and other raw materials to be able to build. There needs to be a budget for this. If we wish to have academic learning occur during the pandemic in a virtual environment we must purchase the devices, the internet access, and the software, and provide both our teachers and students the training to utilize these tools.

In the budget realities, where local school districts still do not have the spending authority, they had in 2007 fifteen years later in 2022 doing everything is a challenge. School districts have had to be creative with every dollar they receive just to pay the costs of their existing staff, and meet, to the best of their ability, all the other service requirements that come with running a school district while the funding did not keep up. Most districts did not have enough funding to cover the ground-floor base requirements of running schools. Because of this, those districts across the nation had to utilize those one-time, and other restricted use funds, to maintain just what they had and not make cuts because the government had not yet brought funding back to the levels of 2007.

This current year there has been quite a bit of discussion between the Governor and Legislature on where the influx of state funds should be spent. Just this past week the Legislature passed a budget that they know is not supported by the Governor. This now means more negotiations, or we may see the first significant use of the "blue pencil" veto authority that California voters granted the Governor. For school districts, however, it is much of the same as all districts are required to adopt a budget for the following year with absolutely no assurance of what the total revenue will be. This delays final planning until July and a continuing tight labor market will make it a challenge to implement whatever is finally enacted for the upcoming year's budget.

The reality is we have had three (3) full graduating classes go through our public education system from kindergarten through 12th grade that did not have all the necessary resources provided that are required to appropriately prepare them for the future. If we have learned anything from the pandemic, we understand the need for, and value of a sound education to create a foundation for the future.

Our existing educators on both the certificated (teaching) and classified (service) sides of district operations worked tirelessly to make a difference in those students' lives.

  • They worked with an increasing cost of living that made it near impossible to live near where they worked.

  • They worked with increasing demands for services from the community as support for after-school recreation, mental health and social emotion health supports services were shifted to become school responsibilities instead of the city or other government agency.

  • They worked as early education programs were increased, taking facilities designed for K-12 students away without the funding or flexibility necessary to build or modernize appropriate spaces for these younger students.

  • They worked in an environment that constantly shifted the delivery of instruction, from direct in-person, to fully virtual, to hybrid, to in-person with social distancing, to in-person with new safety protocols – each requiring a new way of instruction.

  • They worked with the belief that the legislators who provided the funding were doing so in a way that would provide some needed stability in an ongoing way.

This is a cautionary tale with respect to school funding. If you read the headlines, most discuss the “unprecedented level,” “significant increases,” and the “great investment” in public education funding being made to restore the essential function of public education. A function that now has even more relevance after a nation discovered just how critical it is for the economy and future of America to have schools operating. What we need to clearly understand is that the budget patterns of the past have created a somewhat high house of cards, and just a small breeze couple topples everything over.

Please subscribe to receive an email when Part 3 releases. We will outline the 10 budget areas that are not fully discussed or understood by all stakeholders and how they play a significant role in the ability of a school district to make decisions.

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