Education Leaders Want More Control

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

San Gabriel Valley area education leaders say they are frustrated by the lack of control they have over spending decisions in their school districts on everything from textbooks to curriculum to Local Control Funding, and the state’s penchant for handing down unfunded mandates.

School districts are mandated to implement all kinds of state curriculum changes, whether the funding is there or not, said Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) Board President Edgar Cisneros. Yet when advocates requested approval of a statewide ethnic studies requirement, legislators quickly shot them down because funding is suddenly an issue, Cisneros told EGP.

Sen. Tony Mendoza’s “State of Education” address was held last week in Montebello at MUSD’s Applied Technology Center high school and attended by dozens of superintendents, district board members and teachers from Mendoza’s 32nd Senate District – which includes Commerce, Downey, Montebello, Pico Rivera and Whittier, attended. The program also included a Q & A with an analyst from the State Legislative Analyst’s Office.

While participants generally seemed relieved that the proposed 2015-16 State Budget includes a $7.6 billion bump for k-12 education, several school officials lamented that much of the new revenue will go to pay off debt and unfunded curriculum mandates such as Common Core.

Sen. Tony Mendoza gives his first ever “State of Education” address at the Applied Technology Center in Montebello last week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Sen. Tony Mendoza gives his first ever “State of Education” address at the Applied Technology Center in Montebello last week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The added money is “barely making us positive,” said MUSD Board Member David Vela, referring to the district’s budget.

The state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which allocates more money to schools with higher percentage of “high needs” students – low-income, English Learners and youth in foster care  – has given schools more control over how to use those funds to tackle the achievement gap in those groups, but according to Vela, it’s not enough.

“How can you expect us to play around with that money when all we’ve been doing [for some time] is cutting our debt,” caused by years of state cuts to education funding, Vela said.

He described the difficulty of introducing new technology into the classroom and offering new curriculum, such as dual language immersion and ethnic studies when funding is not available, drawing approving nods from other attendees.

When it comes to what school districts want, like the ethnic studies requirement, there’s never enough money, said a frustrated Cisneros. “It’s just an excuse they use to derail bills,” he said, claiming state officials “are really uptight” about mandating the curriculum because “they would be required to fund it.”

There’s a huge disconnect between the governor’s office and school districts when it comes to the so-called local control over funding, said MUSD Superintendent Susana Contreras-Smith.

With the comfort of being on home turf, MUSD officials led most of the discussion and questions directed at Cabral.

Cisneros cited MUSD’s years-long inability to order updated versions of already approved textbooks because state officials wanting to save money suspended California’s Department of Education’s ability to approve new textbooks, a prerequisite to district purchases.

“I think they need to get it done or give us the power” to select and buy textbooks, Cisneros complained.

Money issues continued to be the hot topic as Edgar Cabral, a fiscal and policy analyst with the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, answered questions from the audience.

Cabral was asked if there are plans to extend Proposition 30, a temporary increase in the sales tax and on incomes over $250,000 a year approved by voters in 2012 to fund K-12 education and community colleges. The tax is expected to have raised $7.9 billion by the end of the 2014-2015 Fiscal Year, however revenues will decline when some provisions sunset later this year.

Superintendent Steve Pell pointed out that funds for programs like special education have already been cut and additional cuts will hit MUSD hard. “We want to have an outstanding program, we’re trying really hard, but there’s not enough money,” he said.

As for the state backing new bonds to pay for needed capital improvements to equipment and facilities, Cabral said Gov. Brown is concerned about state debt and believes bonds should be passed at the local level.

Then “the state should make it easier for local cities to implement their own bonds,” responded someone from the audience.

State officials are not realistic when it comes to the cost of fixing aging infrastructure, countered Vela. He said school districts like MUSD do not have the same ability as the state to raise large sums of money. A million dollars will not go very far in L.A. County’s third largest school district, he noted.

“The state needs to get out of Sacramento, come out and tour Montebello,” he said. “We know we have a senator that will fight for us, but he can’t be the only voice.”

Sen. Mendoza agreed. He said Gov. Brown’s expectations about what school districts could do with LCFF revenue were unrealistic. He supports passage of a facilities bond, but cautioned that residents should think of the bond as adding another credit card in the state’s wallet.

But “Our public schools need it; it’s long overdue,” Mendoza said.

Ultimately, the question of extending a facilities bond will most likely go to the voters if successfully placed on the ballot by the governor or legislature, explained Cabral.

Mendoza – a former teacher who taught students in East Los Angeles – said if passed, the three bills in his education packet would protect children by enhancing consequences for drug trafficking and manufacturing near schools; creating greater oversight of charter schools, and requiring day care center workers to be immunized.

Cisneros told EGP the district needs to advocate for issues it believes in and get involved the way it did last week when 35 Bell Gardens Intermediate students traveled to Sacramento to push for a bill they co-authored with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia that would encourage the inclusion of the Mexican Repatriation in history textbooks.

“We don’t do enough to lobby” state lawmakers Cisneros told EGP. “We need to voice our political support for the things we believe in.”

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April 2, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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