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Close to Home: School funding retooled

  • This artwork by Nancy Ohanian relates to education reform.

During the years that California imposed funding cuts on K-12 education, local school districts had to consolidate or eliminate specialty programs for students. This put our districts in the uncomfortable position of having to respond to public outcry about these changes while having very little control over what happened with their finances.

Now that the state's economy has stabilized and Proposition 30 is restoring funds to education, our schools face a different kind of budget challenge. Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature have enacted a new funding strategy for school districts.

The local control funding formula pools local and state taxes to establish a base amount of per-student funding for all school districts in the state. This base amount is supplemented for districts that have large populations of English learners, foster youth or low-income students. Districts receiving supplemental funds must use the additional dollars to improve services for their high-need students.

This major change in school finance represents a dramatic retooling of the status quo. The new funding formula transforms the practice of providing "categorical" funds that are restricted to specific uses. Those restrictions have now been lifted and replaced with an expectation that each district will decide how to use state dollars to best educate its students.

School districts have wanted local control for some time. When K-12 education became dependent on specialty funding and the state regulations that came with it, districts lost the authority to make decisions based on the specific strengths and challenges of their student population. Now, the governor and Legislature are trusting each local community to make wise choices and implement effective strategies that will lead to school improvement across California.

There are, of course, strings attached. The state has given budget control to local jurisdictions, but it has also mandated that districts engage their stakeholders — staff, students, parents and other community members — in determining how funds will be allocated to meet student needs.

This is a new responsibility and one that districts do not take lightly. Districts must work with their community to set specific goals, establish action plans and determine how they will measure progress. They must write a local plan that is linked to their annual budget, specifying how state funds will be applied to district goals. County superintendents must review and approve these plans, then monitor implementation over three years against the locally determined measures of success.

Over the next few months, all 40 school districts in Sonoma County will hold stakeholder meetings, send out community surveys and form committees to develop, review and comment on district plans and priorities. Public hearings will also be incorporated into school board meetings, leading up to final adoption of district plans in June.

Now is the time for the community to come to the table and give input on school spending priorities and measures of success. I urge Sonoma County residents to become an engaged citizenry and ask you to add your voice to the discussion about how school funds are allocated in your district. Check with your local school district this week for the schedule of community stakeholder meetings.

This is an opportunity for real participatory government and it should not be wasted.

Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County's superintendent of schools.


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