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As school districts enjoy an extra infusion of grant money, one challenge state officials face is ensuring the funds are actually spent on the English-language learners, low-income students and foster children they are intended to help, and not the larger student body.

Teacher pay raises became a particularly contentious issue this spring. Across Sonoma County and the state, teachers unions argued that some of the supplemental and concentration grant money should be used to provide their members with what for many would be the first pay raise since the recession.

Such was the case in Santa Rosa, where the Santa Rosa Teachers Association and the Santa Rosa City Schools district found themselves at loggerheads over the size of teacher raises. Amy Stern, president of the association, said part of the disagreement came down to whether funds the district was receiving to serve disadvantaged kids could be spent on increased compensation. The district said no; the union disagreed.

The teachers’ argument, Stern said, was that the district was not able to attract and retain quality teachers with the current level of salaries and medical benefits, and that a lack of quality teachers negatively affected all students.

But children’s advocacy groups, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, have countered that supplemental and concentration funds should rarely be used for across-the-board teacher raises or any universal program because the funds are meant to help a specific population.

“The key is to provide higher levels of service to kids to address historic inequities,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education policy at the Oakland-based Children Now.

The issue faded in May when school districts received additional funds in the governor’s revised budget, giving Santa Rosa City Schools the money to provide teachers with their desired raises without dipping into the supplemental funds meant to be spent on underserved students.

But Santa Rosa City Schools was far from the only district to grapple with this issue. This week, the state superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, sent all county and district superintendents a letter in response to many questions it had received regarding whether funds doled out to serve needy kids could be spent on teacher pay.

In the letter, Torlakson said that in order to use such moneys for an across-the-board teacher raise, districts must show that current salaries make it hard to keep or recruit good teachers, affecting the quality of education — particularly for underserved students. Districts with fewer than 55 percent disadvantaged students also will have to show that providing raises is the best use of their additional funds.

Districts must make these arguments in the updates to their spending plans, known as Local Control Accountability Plans, which they must submit for approval to their county superintendent by July 1.

Diann Kitamura, assistant superintendent at Santa Rosa City Schools, said, “We believe that SRCS is following the statute by using base dollars for the things that every student deserves — such as the highest-quality staff and access to classes and materials.”

Bellevue Union School District, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for extra funds, dipped into its supplemental funds when it provided its teachers with 5 percent raises this spring. That boost came on top of other recent hikes to result in an overall 15 percent pay increase for teachers over the past three years.

Superintendent Alicia Henderson said the raise was key to attracting high-quality teachers.

“Before we increased the salary schedule, our salary for an incoming teacher was one of the lowest in Sonoma County,” she said. “That’s not where you want to be when you want to attract quality teachers to do a big job in a district that has a lot of work to do.”

Teachers recently negotiated 5 percent raises in the Cotati- Rohnert Park Unified School District and Superintendent Robert Haley said the district still is considering whether to spend its supplemental grant dollars to pay for part of the raise.

Even though Cotati-Rohnert Park has fewer than 55 percent disadvantaged students, Haley said he thinks paying for raises would be a proper use for the funds.

“It will deliver significant changes in how we deliver instruction,” he said. The raises are meant to pay for increased class time for middle school students, he said. The district is planning to phase in the extra teaching time, which will equal between 30 and 40 minutes a day. They will also cover built-in time for teacher collaboration, which will lead to better instruction, he said.

Petaluma City Schools is using supplemental funds to pay for part of a 5.6 percent raise for teachers. Superintendent Steve Bolman justified the expense using a argument similar to Haley’s — that the money isn’t just paying for existing services; rather, it pays for two additional staff development days where teachers will learn how to better serve the disadvantaged students.

At the Sonoma County Office of Education, Educational Support Services Administrator Toni Beal works with districts throughout the year to make sure they are spending their state funds in accordance with the goals set out in the Local Control Accountability Plan.

She said districts must show her office that they have increased services for disadvantaged kids in proportion to the amount of money they’ve been given to serve them.

“We look at it and say, ‘Does that make sense?’ ” she said.

California Department of Education spokesman Bill Ainsworth said this is the point of the new funding formula: To allow school districts, in concert with their county superintendents and local communities, to decide how best to spend their money.

“Our long-standing position is that local school districts must determine how to spend their resources at the local level while following the law,” he said.

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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