Santa Ana School Leaders Vexed by New Funding Plans

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Santa Ana school officials this week echoed the concerns of others around the state, saying their district’s proposed action plan under the state’s new funding system lacks details about what actions will be taken to reach its goals – or how much they will cost.

Under the new system, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, school districts are supposed to proactively work with the public on how to spend millions in extra funds for high-needs students. Among other things, they must establish local accountability plans.

But at their Tuesday night board meeting, a top Santa Ana Unified School District official said important elements of their draft plan are missing, such as projected price tags and actions to achieve its goals.

“This is tied to [our upcoming] budget, yet we don’t see a connection other than a theoretical one at this point. So that only gives us a few meetings to try to bring it all together,” said board President Audrey Yamagata-Noji.

She also pointed to the plan’s goal of boosting the rate of English learners who become fluent. The document doesn’t explain how the district would work to achieve that goal.

“That’s a big topic,” said Yamagata-Noji, directing district staff to break down what exactly the district would be doing, what staff they would need and what it would cost.

Board member John Palacio, meanwhile, said the whole process is “very complicated,” and urged district staff to meet again with parent-teacher associations to explain where things go from here.

(Click here to read the district’s draft plan.)

Similar concerns are being expressed about Local Control Accountability Plans  across the state.

The nonprofit education organization EdSource reported last week that many of the plans “are dense with education jargon, acronyms and legalese” and often “don’t provide a clear picture of how districts will use state funds to improve the academic performance of ‘high-needs’ students.”

While districts can create extra documents that explain their plans more clearly, many have so far only used a state template.

District staff, meanwhile, emphasized that changes can be made to the plan.

The “idea is to put it out there for as many people to lay eyes on” before it becomes final, said Stefanie Phillips, the district’s deputy superintendent for business services.

Yamagata-Noji asked how the plan can be presented in a way that parents can understand.

“We can actually talk about that strategy further, away from the dais,” Phillips replied, adding that staff will sit down with parents and talk them through the plan.

Community activists, meanwhile, on Tuesday reiterated their calls for the district to include funding in the local control plan for so-called “restorative justice” programs, which are intended to resolve conflicts through dialogue and mediation, as opposed to suspensions and expulsions. 

Ana Urzua, campaign coordinator with the Santa Ana Building Health Communities, pointed to the example of West Philadelphia High School, which had been listed by Pennsylvania as a “persistently dangerous school” for six years.

But one year after implementing a restorative justice program, Urzua said, suspensions fell 50 percent and violent acts dropped by 52 percent.

”We believe that when we address the needs of the most vulnerable everyone is lifted,” said Urzua.

The other five public speakers also appealed to district officials to reform their approach to student discipline.

“While we know that the district is committed to PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports), the implementation is uneven and inconsistent,” said Sandra Ortega of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Orange County, referring to the district’s existing discipline reform program.

“We believe that the district needs to make a serious commitment” to restorative justice in its local control plan, she added.

District officials, meanwhile, replied that they’ve made huge strides in recent years.

Yamagata-Noji said many of the speakers “had issues in your assumptions about what this district may or may not be doing.”

She directed the district’s superintendent, Dr. Rick Miller, to meet with activists “so that you will have more of the actual progress that we have made.”

Activists have also called for an end to suspensions for “willful defiance”; the creation of clear guidelines for police use of force; and posting school discipline policies online.

Additionally, they want the district to establish a school oversight committee, comprised of parents, teachers, district officials and others.

“I really do think that we need to have a committee where they get to see if we’re succeeding in all the programs that we want to implement,” said Dulce Saavedra, a Santa Ana resident who attends Cal State Fullerton.

Santa Ana Unified is slated to receive an extra $37 million next fiscal year under the Local Control Funding Formula, which is considered one of the most sweeping changes to school funding in decades.

The new law boosts state funding for students who are in low-income families, are learning English or are foster youth.

Central to the program is each district’s local accountability plan, which is supposed to outline how they’ll meet certain goals.

Santa Ana Unified officials say they engaged in an extensive an aggressive outreach campaign that led nearly 5,000 people to participate.

“I think at the end of the day, the fact that we have these parents that are engaged, [who] perhaps weren’t going to be engaged, is a success,” said Palacio.

“We can work together to address the challenges and the opportunities that we have.”

The draft plan is still up for public input, with members of the public able to address the school board at upcoming meetings.

An updated version of Santa Ana Unified’s plan is set for a discussion by board members on May 27, followed by a public hearing on June 10 and final adoption on June 24.

Under state law, the plan will be updated each year, with next year’s public input starting in January.

Yamagata-Noji said the topic deserves an in-depth discussion by board members that simply wasn’t possible at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I do think we need to get more into the details instead of swirling around,” she said. “So I would expect that at the next meeting we would have a much greater understanding of what we’re specifically going to do.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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