La Cañada Unified eyes challenges

It's not easy being a high-performing school district in an affluent community.

The La Cañada Unified School District, whose students have the second-highest test scores of any K-12 district in the state, is facing several financial challenges.

While California voters passed Proposition 30 in November to support public schools, La Cañada Unified leaders are concerned that the higher sales and income taxes required to pay for the measure might harm fundraising efforts by the La Cañada Educational Foundation. The foundation raises more than $2 million a year for summer school, teachers' salaries and more.

Tax changes that would go into effect Jan. 1 if the federal government does not steer clear of the “fiscal cliff” pose additional burdens.

Finally, a shift in the way California funds programs for English-language learners could take a bite directly from the La Cañada Unified budget.

When Gov. Jerry Brown reveals his proposed state budget next month, he is expected to pursue a new school funding model known as the weighted student formula. The formula provides additional money for school districts with high numbers of English-language learners and low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

La Cañada has relatively few students in either category.

La Cañada Supt. Wendy Sinnette said during a Dec. 4 school board meeting that she thinks the governor's goal “is a good one.” But she also said it made some districts winners of increased funding and others losers, and that La Cañada Unified would be one of the biggest losers.

Details of the proposal and the exact fiscal consequences are still being hashed out. At the Dec. 4 meeting, members of the La Cañada Unified board discussed ways of influencing the process.

Board member Susan Boyd suggested that parents be encouraged to voice their concerns about the new funding formula, and that the district should seek support from state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge).

Board members also said a key official in crafting the new formula is Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), who is chair of the Assembly Education Committee and who has expressed skepticism about the formula.

“She has to, in one way or another, sign off on whatever bill [passes],” board member Andrew Blumenfeld said.

Blumenfeld suggested that working with Buchanan may result in a counter-proposal to the governor's that has broad legislative support. “I think the governor is going to have to make some serious concessions,” he said.

Another key policymaker is Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who has offered a separate formula for restructuring statewide school funding .

Board member Ellen Multari said the effort is not to protect La Cañada Unified from sharing the financial burden, but to make sure school funding is fair to all districts.

“It's more about equity, starting at a baseline of equity and layering on the needs as they exist,” she said.

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