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Funding changes bring uncertainty to Sonoma County schools


California's model for school funding has been turned on its head, leaving educators in Sonoma County scrambling to figure out what the new landscape means for valued and established programs.

Some say the radical change that gives local boards more control over money matters is a long time coming and a welcome change, while others are expressing concern that the shake-up will leave valued programs out in the cold.

The change could affect funds once designated for everything from agriculture classes to high school exit exam preparation.

"This is huge, huge, huge," Mickey Porter, assistant superintendent of educational support services for the Sonoma County Office of Education, said of the way the state is now allocating school funding under the Local Control Funding Formula.

"LCFF has changed how we view and how we answer the question of 'Which programs should be in schools?'" she said.

Under the new formula, all school districts will receive a base amount of funding with markedly fewer restrictions as to where those dollars can be spent.

In addition, districts are slated to receive supplemental funds based on the number of English learners, socio-economically disadvantaged and foster children who are enrolled.

Districts with disadvantaged enrollments of more than 55 percent will get even more money.

The change comes at a time when California's coffers for education are the fullest they have been in years.

In addition to revenues from voter-approved Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget calls for $6.3 billion in additional funds for K-12 and community colleges next year.

It is the change in how those funds are doled out that has dominated the conversations among educators and administrators across Sonoma County as they craft their 2014-15 budgets.

But with the new freedom comes additional pressure from various constituencies that are now lobbying local officials for financial consideration -#8212; in some cases for well-established programs.

"That is the push and pull of it," Porter said. "Along with local accountability comes responsibility."

And for the first time, districts are required to include an explanation -#8212; dubbed the Local Control and Accountability Plan -#8212; of how their spending will improve student learning.

"Districts complained for years that they were told how to spend their money. Now they are not telling you how to spend it," said Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent of business services for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"It's a complete shift in thinking," she said.

That overhaul is prompting some self examination among district leaders about which programs are working and which might need re-assessment.

"We are highly encouraging people, 'Don't let go of these programs if they are meeting needs in your district.' But if you have them because you have them -#8212; take a look at them," Porter said.

Some anxious educators contend the new rules are making it difficult to plan courses and design curriculum.

"It's a tough time. As a teacher, in the spring, we are all worried about numbers and enrollment and now we have to worry about other stuff that we didn't have to worry about before," said Kim Arntz, chairwoman of the Petaluma High School Agriculture Department.

Petaluma City Schools in 2012-13 got more $14,000 through a state agriculture incentive grant. That money -#8212; which is part of a community matching program -#8212; is coming this year, but is no longer automatically tied to agriculture classes. So it could mean the loss of $28,000 to the ag program, she said.

In addition, all career technical funding will now largely be assigned on a per-student basis rather than for existing programs -#8212; a dramatic change that could alter how many districts deliver career-focused classes.

"By design, the governor has said 'It's time for local people to make these decisions and put these priorities in place,'" Petaluma's Chief Business Official Midge Hoffman said. "From my perspective, I think that is a good thing because previously everything was too prescriptive."

The switch in funding formulas comes as both federal and state education officials are increasingly pressing schools to graduate students who are "college and career ready."

For Arntz, who has spent the last 15 years teaching ag classes, that juxtaposition is frustrating.

"If that is the focus of Mr. Torlakson (the state schools superintendent) and the governor and Sacramento, getting kids into careers, the career piece kind of dangles in the wind," she said.

Arntz said Petaluma City Schools has historically valued career technical classes.

"Right now, as has been the case for many years, our district has been extremely supportive of career technical education," she said.

What causes worry, she said, is the new model's elimination of mandates for career-focused funds.

Last year, Santa Rosa City Schools got slightly more than $35,000 from the agriculture incentive grant. School Board President Bill Carle said support for keeping those dollars earmarked for agriculture classes is strong.

"Realistically, I'd be very surprised if the board was going to change anything in our ag program," he said.

Making more spending decisions local has been a long-standing demand and one that makes sense, he said.

"What better place for that to happen than at the local level?" he said. "As opposed to comparing the needs of our students with those in L.A. and those in Tulare County -#8212; we all have different needs. Let's talk about what our local students need, as opposed to having to fit within the categorical funding that fits with L.A. Unified."