Fresno Unified parents want say in how new state funds are spent

The Fresno BeeNovember 7, 2013 

Parents' ideas, as well as those of Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson, should be considered when deciding how the district should spend an extra $15 million from the state.

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Fresno Unified is getting about $15 million extra from the state this year and parents, many frustrated their input often falls on deaf ears, say they want a voice in how the district ultimately spends the cash.

More than 100 parents and school officials from across southwest and central Fresno filled an auditorium Thursday at Edison High School to talk about the new "Local Control Funding Formula," part of a $55 billion education spending package passed by lawmakers in June.

The landmark shift in how the state funds schools pours more dollars to districts with high numbers of low-income and English-learner students. It also gives districts more spending and decision-making power.

The forum -- put on by the Los Angeles-based health foundation the California Endowment -- was geared at getting community input on how the district should spend its new money.

"(The new law) is a vision that imagines everyone comes together at a local level to make the best decisions for schools," said Mary Lou Fulton, a senior program manager with the California Endowment.

"But what we've heard is there's not a level playing field for parents and students. They don't always have access to information, they don't understand the decision-making process and school districts don't make it easy to participate."

Parents offered their own suggestions including offering more elective classes on student leadership, reforming discipline practices and buffing up tutoring programs.

More transparency from district officials and giving parents a vote on the annual budget were also floated by attendees.

"Maybe there's a certain section of the budget that would have to be approved by the parents," said John Minkler, project coordinator at ACEL Fresno charter school. "I think people will continue to come (participate in community forums) if they have a voice in how the money is spent."

Some parents were discouraged and said they think the district won't pay attention to parents' input.

"Us sitting here talking, does it really matter?" said William Wright, father of a son who attends Edison High and daughter at Baird Middle. "We have input, but does it go anywhere? When we come to relay our problems, it's pretty much a dead end."

The new law promises an additional $433 per student in Fresno Unified, raising the district's base allocation from $6,544 to $6,977 next year. After eight years and full implementation of the plan, that number would jump to $12,264.

Low-income districts like Fresno Unified, where 82% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, also will get "supplemental grants," or extra funds equal to 20% of their base grant.

Many local education officials have already staked their ground on where they'd like the money spent.

District Superintendent Michael Hanson said last month he wants to use the funds to lengthen the class day at several schools next year. The dollars would help pay salaries for teachers who spend an extra 30 minutes in the classroom at schools the district picks.

Hanson has said he'll focus on low-income elementary schools first -- 20 next year, and 20 more the following year. The cash could also be used to add 10 extra professional work days for certain teachers.

Trustee Cal Johnson, who attended the forum, said he'd like all schools to eventually extend the class day. More money for career technical education classes, he said, is also one of his priorities.

Lowering class sizes to an average of 25 students in kindergarten to third grade is also on the table, said chief financial officer Ruth Quinto. Adding more professional aides to early education classrooms is another option, she said.

Those plans -- unveiled by the district last month -- are currently under negotiation with the local teachers union.

Fresno Teachers Association leaders have rebuked the deal, saying they'd rather see the money spent on lowering class sizes in all grades.

But there's still uncertainty about how the money can and will be spent, FTA Executive Director Rhonnie Tinsley said in an interview Thursday. For now, she said, the union is waiting to hear more from the state.

"(The funding formula) has just changed so much from last year so there's a lot of confusion and questions on how it's going to work," she said. "It's still a bit of a mystery to most people."

The California Board of Education is still wrestling with a set of draft guidelines on how districts can spend their dollars and who will hold districts accountable.

The board met this week to take up regulations, but made no decisions after hours of debate and testimony from concerned parents. It's expected to finalize the guidelines in January.

In the meantime, Quinto said, Fresno Unified will craft its own reporting plan.

"We will be transparent in how those resources are utilized," she said. "We do that all the time. We do that through our accountability policy, through the monthly reporting we do to the board and required state reporting."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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