La Cañada Unified School District eyes budget plan

Gov. Jerry Brown's recently announced school funding proposal appears friendlier to the La Cañada Unified School District than his previous proposal, district officials said this week.

“On the surface it's encouraging,” said Scott Tracy, president of the La Cañada school board, “but we've got a long way to go.”

Much of the optimism comes from a change in how the governor proposes to fund the state's education. Last year, Brown had proposed a funding formula that based school district funding on individual student need rather than a set, across-the-board amount. As a result, districts with students from lower-income families would likely receive more funding than affluent districts, such as La Cañada. The governor's current funding formula takes a softer stance that doesn't have “distinct winners and losers,” according to Supt. Wendy Sinnette.

Change, while not always easy, will ultimately be a good thing for state schools, according to Tracy.

“Everyone acknowledges that the funding mechanism for public schools in California is outdated and needs to be reformed,” he said. “There's strong agreement on that. The question is what form does it ultimately take?”

However, the new formula would still allocate more money to school districts with larger percentages of low-income and English learners. Those districts could receive supplemental funding, according to the K-12 Education section of the governor's budget summary released on Jan. 10. With only 1% of its students qualifying for the free- or reduced-lunch program, La Cañada could miss out on the funding bonus. A number of the state's top-performing school districts — San Marino, Piedmont, Palos Verdes, Manhattan Beach, Coronado, for example — face the same issue due to the high-income demographics in their respective districts.

But Sinnette warns not to get too worried about the current state of the governor's budget proposal.

“It's important to remember that it is just a proposal,” Sinnette said. “There will be legislative hearings, the May Revision will be released, and we still have the month of June before the final budget is approved. The budget discussion is fluid and will change over the next several months.”

The recent passage of Proposition 30, which halted billions of dollars in trigger cuts, is a key element for giving local control back to the districts, Brown said. The 2013-14 budget includes a total of $56.2 billion in Proposition 98 funding, which is $9 billion more than two years ago. Proposition 98 requires a minimum percentage of the state's budget to be spent on education.

School board member Andrew Blumenfeld also credits the passage of Proposition 39, which requires out-of-state businesses to calculate their California income tax liability based on their percentage of sales in the state, as an additional plus for school funding.

“It is a vast improvement from last year because of the passage of Prop. 30 and Prop. 39,” Blumenfeld said.

Also noteworthy, Blumenfeld said, is that the governor's proposal calls for a cost-of-living adjustment increase of 1.65%.

Brown's plan also calls for $1.8 billion to reduce inter-year deferrals to $5.6 billion.

“The proposed budget by the governor does look to reduce what they call the inter-year deferral, basically the money they owe us,” Blumenfeld said.

La Cañada could score high in academic achievement factors laid out in Brown's budget.

The budget expresses a list of accountability items such as basic conditions for student achievement, programs that benefit low-income students and English language learners and Common Core, which will be implemented in California in 2014-15. Brown's budget also addresses charter school funding, special-education finance, K-12 block grants, technology-based instruction and school facilities' energy efficiency.

But Sinnette says too many questions about funding implementation make it hard to say how the district will be affected.

“We don't know how past deficits would be restored to districts,” Sinnette said. “And with this new funding model you'd have to at least return to the 2007-08 base funding levels in order for the model's baseline to start in an equitable place.”

“It's all still being studied,” Blumenfeld said about the state education budget. “This is just one proposal. It's a long process until it all goes through.”

“We'll definitely be monitoring and looking closely at this,” Tracy said.

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