Los Angeles school officials vowed Tuesday to fight to be able to spend the money they get from the state for special education programs.
The response follows a California Department of Education decision in May that required the district to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars for students with disabilities to other high-needs groups, including English language learners, poor students and foster children.
Under a state funding process called the Local Control Funding Formula, students in those groups are supposed to get more money because they often require more support from their schools.
Community Coalition, a South L.A.-based advocacy group, sued the district last year and filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, accusing L.A. Unified of misusing money on students with disabilities instead of giving direct services to the targeted students in the other groups.
"The state's decision is not legally supportable, and we intend to challenge this decision," Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Michelle King said during Tuesday's board meeting.
Most special education students also fall into another local funding category and should be included as a targeted group, L.A. schools Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly said during Tuesday's meeting.
The board discussed the superintendent's proposed budget and will vote on it June 21.
The district spends about $1.4 billion of its annual $7-billion budget on special education students, about $400 million of which comes from state or federal funds.
"Somehow lost in all of this are the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent by this district because of the inadequacy of special education funding and distribution," L.A. Unified board President Steve Zimmer said during the meeting.
Students with disabilities have a federal right to a "free and appropriate public education," thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While that includes federal funding, the money is usually not enough to cover all needs; the rest comes from the district's general funds.
"This is something that was left out of the LCFF formula, or [the state needs] to fully fund the cost of special education students' needs," Reilly told the board.
If the district were forced to find the money for special education students elsewhere, schools would have to increase class sizes and eliminate staff, Reilly said.
Board member Scott Schmerelson agreed, asking district staff whether it was possible to dedicate a full-time staff member to advocate in Sacramento for the addition of special needs students to be included in the Local Control Funding Formula.
The district might not need to redirect $450 million in funds, as originally thought. A letter received Tuesday from state Supt. Tom Torlakson said L.A. Unified may be able to keep a large chunk of funding for special education students if the district can explain why those students should fall under the funding formula. The letter also allows the district to implement changes for the 2017-18 school year, instead of in the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Students and community members who attended Tuesday's meeting said they wanted their schools to get more money and they wanted to be heard.
Parents from the District-level English Learner Advisory Committee complained that the district didn't listen to them in conversations about how to spend the state funds.
Jaquay Jones, a rising senior at Crenshaw High School, asked for restorative justice funding in South L.A. and told the board that days have gotten shorter at her high school. There was a point, she said, when there were only two bathrooms open on campus for hundreds of students because of budget concerns.
"We need this money to help keep our bathrooms open, to get programs like Linked Learning into Crenshaw," Jones said. "To get more counselors to meet with students and put them on the path to college."
Times staff reporter Howard Blume contributed to this report.
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