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$9.3 Million at Stake : O.C. School Districts Move on Equalizing State Funds

Times Staff Writer

Angry that more than 13 years of court rulings and laws have failed to correct wide disparities in school funding throughout the state, parents, business people and educators in Orange County are preparing a powerful lobbying force to win more dollars for their under-funded school districts.

In the Orange Unified School District, a communitywide coalition is launching a mass letter-writing campaign and plans to travel to Sacramento next month to seek a closing of the funding gap between their district and neighboring ones, such as Los Alamitos Unified School District.

While Orange Unified received $2,776 from the state for every student in the district this school year, Los Alamitos received $3,213 per student--or $437 more. That translates to $10.6 million a year that Orange Unified is doing without, district officials say. In the Capistrano Unified School District, parents and educators, whose 5,000 letters to legislators in December led to the introduction of two school equalization bills in the state Assembly, are now spending $4,000 a month on their own Sacramento lobbyist to ensure passage of the measures, a move no other Orange County district has undertaken.

“The kind of money we’re spending is chicken feed compared to what’s at stake,” Capistrano Unified School Board President E.G. (Ted) Kopp explained.

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What is at stake for Orange County schools is $9.3 million, the amount it would take to bring the 22 districts that are below the state average up to that spending level. Statewide, the price tag of equity is $124 million, because 750 of the state’s 1,018 districts are below the average, according to state legislators and the Assn. of Low Wealth Schools, a statewide organization whose president is from Orange County.

“My tax money is paying for that discrepancy,” said Anna Marie Wood, the mother of two children in Orange Unified’s Anaheim Hills Elementary School. “Parents are wondering, where is the equality in this state, in this nation that we live in?”

The irony is that these disparities come more than a decade after the landmark 1976 state Supreme Court ruling in Serrano vs. Priest, which held that unequal funding between school districts was discriminatory.

Yet despite legislative acts and periodic readjustments of funding formulas, there remain stark contrasts between school districts: Dublin Joint Unified School District in Alameda County receives $4,036 per student, while the Morongo Unified School District in San Bernardino County gets $2,747 per pupil; in Orange County, the Santa Ana Unified School District receives $2,751 per student, while the Newport-Mesa Unified School District receives $3,088 per student.

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All three Orange County high school districts are below the state average. All but two of the county’s 14 elementary districts fall below the state average, and seven of 12 unified school districts are under the average.

The state Board of Education lists the average as $3,254 for high school districts, $2,615 for elementary districts and $2,784 for unified districts.

“I just think it’s tragic that because a child lives in . . . Magnolia or Capistrano he is discriminated against because he doesn’t happen to live in another district like Beverly Hills or Los Alamitos,” said Richard Shimeall, a trustee of the Magnolia School District in Anaheim, which is in the bottom three among the county’s elementary districts for state funding.

His district receives $2,562 per student, while neighboring Cypress gets $2,855 per student.

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Wood says more money for her children’s schools in Anaheim Hills could mean music teachers, more money for supplies in science classrooms--sometimes just basic supplies such as updated textbooks that schools in Orange County often do without.

“You cannot teach up-to-date physical science if you don’t have the equipment,” said Wood, who used to work as a science teacher in another Orange County school. “I remember being told by the principal one time that our paper supply was gone, and we had 2 months left in the school year. How can you teach without paper?”

Attorneys seeking enforcement of the Serrano-Priest decision went back to the courts to try to correct what they saw as a widening gap in school funding. But last September, they reached a litigious dead-end when the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court case that ruled against the schools.

That’s when many school districts and communities decided that the solution would have to come from lobbying legislators. Yet that too appears to be an uphill fight.

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Not only is there already keen competition for limited state funds, but some state officials disagree that school funding equity is critical. While the court said the districts should be no more than $100 apart in their per-student allocations from the state, some legislators and school officials argue that because of inflation since the original court ruling, a spread of as much as $200 per student is acceptable. The state Department of Education reports that about 95% of California students are in school districts that vary from the state average by less than $200.

“The issue of low-wealth school districts is no longer a valid issue in Sacramento,” said Tom Burns, assistant to state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights).

But others, such as Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), a longtime proponent of equal funding, say a variation of $200 and more per student does not comply with the intent of Serrano-Priest.

“We have school districts in my (legislative) district that vary as much as $200 and $300,” she said. “It isn’t appropriate for any district to vary to the degree that they do. It doesn’t make sense. That equates to more teachers, more specialized services. That makes a big difference in the quality of education they’re getting.”

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Allen has introduced one of the five school-equalization measures now before state legislators. Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) has submitted another.

Allen’s bill, which is expected to go before the assembly’s subcommittee on education reform in the next couple of weeks, calls for equal funding for all of the state’s school districts next year, which would cost $124 million.

Other bills, such as Ferguson’s, call for allocating money over several years to bring the districts closer to the state average, although none is as sweeping as Allen’s.

The key to the debate is the base revenue limit, the amount the state parcels out to each school district based on average daily attendance. (State lottery funds are not included in the base revenue, nor are “categorical” funds for such extras to certain school districts as the free lunch program.) The base revenue is the yardstick used by the court in 1976 to compare districts. That amount should not vary by more than $100, the court ruled.

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But one reason base revenues continue to vary so much is that they are based on a complex formula that involves each school district’s local taxation levels in 1972-73, plus a variety of cost-of-living and “equalization” adjustments since added to the formula.

“Chances are, districts that were low-wealth then are still low-wealth,” said John Perry, assistant superintendent of business services for the Orange Unified School District, who is also president of the Assn. of Low Wealth Schools.

Things became still more complicated in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, which slashed property tax revenue, formerly the main source of school funding. The state had to scramble for new funding sources, and at the same time schools across the state began cutting back on all but the most necessary programs.

Another reason for the inequities is that many school districts, especially in Orange County, have been faced with rapid growth and changing ethnic populations that require additional funding.

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Other districts have been hit by declining enrollment. Tiny Yorba Linda Elementary School District, for example, has seen its revenue from the state shrink as it lost enrollment in recent years. This year, it ranked at the bottom among elementary school districts in Orange County.

It became so difficult to run a district on the money brought in by such a small number of students--1,896--that voters in the district agreed to put the district out of business. In June, they will merge with the 17,500-student Placentia Unified School District. The move means that Yorba Linda’s students, who used to bring $2,473 each from the state for the district to educate them, will now attend a school that receives $2,756 per student.

Yorba Linda district Supt. Mary Ellen Blanton said declining school revenue pushed her to support the merger, even though it will put her out of a job.

“We just didn’t have the programs” to educate students, she said. “Our school district was getting smaller and smaller.

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“We haven’t had any music for 5 years,” Blanton said. “We had no special reading teachers at the first-grade level.”

Those involved in the movement to equalize funding for poorer schools all agree on one thing: The money will not come at the expense of wealthier school districts.

“It’s very important for us to have people know we’re not calling for new taxes, and we’re not asking that money be taken away from other districts,” said Russell Barrios, an Orange Unified trustee who is involved in the new lobbying effort. “So they don’t have to feel threatened by this.”

Most involved are eyeing Proposition 98, the measure passed last year by voters that mandated the Legislature to set aside about 40% of the state’s general fund budget for education. This year, the measure will mean an extra $450 million for schools.

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Every camp has a different proposal for how to spend the money. One bill by Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) would spend some of it on new vocational education programs. Gov. George Deukmejian has proposed using some of it to reduce the number of students per class. But educators concerned with equalization say it would be better to even everyone up first.

Allen’s bill does not specify where the money for school parity would come from, but she has urged her colleagues to tap Prop. 98 funds to enact the changes.

Allen, who noted that legislators’ proposals for Proposition 98 funds total $950 million, said she would be grateful to get just half the estimated $124 million.

And this is the year, she said, to make the push, because it may be the last year that the politically powerful Los Angeles Unified School District’s base revenue falls below the state average.

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“Politically, it will be very difficult to get equalization dollars without one of the major players,” Allen said. “Why would their representatives vote for such a bill if their constituents weren’t affected?”

Mike Dillon, the lobbyist for the Assn. of Low Wealth Schools, predicted the various education equalization bills will be folded together and perhaps will receive some funding. But he noted, “There is a budget crisis in Sacramento and some other programs outside of education have been hurt.”

Capistrano Unified Trustee Kopp concedes, “The odds are against us on this.”

But that they are organizing lobbying efforts is a measure of just how desperate the need for more money is in Capistrano Unified and elsewhere.

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Kopp said district officials and community leaders note that theirs is the only unified district in the state without a health plan for its retired teachers. The district, which already spends 85% of its general fund budget on wages and benefits for its employees, is falling further behind in state funding.

“What I also see coming in the not-too-distant future is labor problems,” Kopp predicted.

That is what persuaded Capistrano Unified trustees that it was worth spending $4,000 a month of their state lottery funds to send their own lobbyist to seek action in Sacramento on the funding equity. “If we’re ever going to do this, now’s the time,” he said.

In the Orange Unified district, the lobbying campaign also is revving up.

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Community leaders have decided they have to create a grass-roots movement to get the attention of Sacramento, a revolt fueled by business leaders, parents and others that the district refers to as the “consumers” of education.

“Ever since Prop. 13, education has become a political tool,” said Perry of Orange Unified.

If parents and others can flood legislators with thousands of letters, and fill an airplane to Sacramento, “That would be a mighty lobby, that would be a fantastic lobby.”

Even the business community has become involved. At an organizational meeting a few weeks ago, John Keiser, a past president of the Chamber of Commerce and co-owner of a market in downtown Orange, told the group of Orange Unified educators and parents that the city’s business leaders have a vested interest in making sure the schools receive adequate funding.

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“Nobody understands the bottom line more than business people,” he said. “There are about 800 businessmen in the chamber . . . and we’re vitally concerned because of the number of these youngsters going directly into the work force” after high school graduation.

Given the state budget problems, Orange County educators and administrators agree that prospects are dim for full parity in school funding.

What would they settle for?

Said Shimeall of Anaheim’s Magnolia School District: “Realistically, I’d like to be close enough (to the average) so that a child in my district can’t walk to another district where they’re able to afford certain things that his district can’t afford, like reading specialists, like field trips.”

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FUNDING SHORTFALL FOR ORANGE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Projected Revenues ***Total Average **Basic Difference Daily *Basic Revenues From State Attendance Revenues 88-89 Average 89-90 88-89 (State) Per Student DISTRICT NAME HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS State average $3,105 Huntington 15,082 3,219 $3,061 -$44 Beach Union High Anaheim 19,939 3,212 3,053 -52 Union High School Fullerton Joint 11,715 3,198 3,053 -52 UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICTS State average 2,662 Los Alamitos Unified 5,821 3,213 3,091 429 Newport-Mesa Unified 15,621 3,088 2,917 255 Laguna Beach Unified 1,989 2,893 2,763 101 Tustin Unified 9,992 2,811 2,690 28 Saddleback 22,948 2,785 2,662 **** Valley Unified Orange Unified 24,184 2,777 2,656 -6 Irvine Unified 20,739 2,776 2,654 -8 Garden 35,838 2,756 2,636 -26 Grove Unified Santa Ana Unified 38,796 2,752 2,635 -27 Capistrano Unified 23,920 2,753 2,635 -27 Placentia Unified 17,890 2,756 2,635 -27 Brea-Olinda Unified 4,357 2,758 2,635 -27 ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICTS State average 2,520 Cypress Elementary 3,610 2,855 2,750 230 Centralia Elementary 4,438 2,695 2,595 75 Savanna Elementary 1,916 2,602 2,503 -17 Buena 3,985 2,591 2,488 -32 Park Elementary Fountain 6,094 2,581 2,486 -34 Valley Elementary Yorba 1,896 2,473 2,477 -43 Linda Elementary Huntington 5,414 2,570 2,472 -48 Beach City Elementary Westminster Elementary 7,668 2,569 2,463 -57 Anaheim City Elementary 13,466 2,572 2,463 -57 Ocean View Elementary 8,509 2,558 2,463 -57 Magnolia Elementary 4,646 2,563 2,463 -57 La Habra 4,608 2,563 2,463 -57 City Elementary Fullerton 10,417 2,579 2,462 -57 Elementary TOTAL (All Levels) 345,498 -9,377,048

District Difference From State Average DISTRICT NAME HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS State average Huntington -$657,914 Beach Union High Anaheim -1,029,898 Union High School Fullerton Joint -607,100 UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICTS State average Los Alamitos Unified 0 Newport-Mesa Unified 0 Laguna Beach Unified 0 Tustin Unified 0 Saddleback -1,376 Valley Unified Orange Unified -146,312 Irvine Unified -172,755 Garden -946,121 Grove Unified Santa Ana Unified -1,045,938 Capistrano Unified -652,058 Placentia Unified -479,093 Brea-Olinda Unified -118,336 ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICTS State average Cypress Elementary 0 Centralia Elementary 0 Savanna Elementary -32,807 Buena -127,131 Park Elementary Fountain -207,272 Valley Elementary Yorba -81,950 Linda Elementary Huntington -257,503 Beach City Elementary Westminster Elementary -436,404 Anaheim City Elementary -770,288 Ocean View Elementary -482,226 Magnolia Elementary -263,579 La Habra -262,713 City Elementary Fullerton -598,274 Elementary TOTAL (All Levels)

Dollar amounts are rounded to nearest dollar.

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*School districts per student allocations from the state minus special funds, such as small district transportation monies, for comparison purposes.

**Per-studentrevenues school districts receive from the state.

*** Districts with revenues above the state average are listed as “0".

**** Less than $1.

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Source: State Assembly Joint Rules Committee and school districts .


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