Community groups pressure Fresno Unified School District on new spending plan

The Fresno BeeJanuary 23, 2014 

Concerned civic groups urged Fresno Unified officials Thursday to be more transparent and collaborative when it comes to spending new state education funds.

About 40 people from community organizations like Californians for Justice and The Children's Movement of Fresno met with administrators over lunch at a meeting hosted by local literacy group Reading and Beyond.

The money in question comes through a revised state spending formula that sends extra cash to districts with lots of foster kids, low-income and non-English-speaking students. More than 85% of Fresno Unified's kids fall within those categories. As a result, the district's per-student allotment from the state is expected to jump from about $6,638 to $11,722 by 2020.

The hope is that the new money will help compensate for inequalities that at-risk youth currently face.

The groups said they hope the money is spent on everything from more counselors to outreach services for parents looking to get involved in Fresno schools. Others said they're worried the district isn't making a good faith effort to ask parents how the dollars should be spent.

"They're not reaching out to who the money is for," said MaryJane Skjellerup, senior director of programs at the Youth Leadership Institute.

At one point, several members of the audience called on district representative Tammy Townsend to schedule another meeting with parents of low-income and foster youth. Townsend, executive officer for state and federal programs, agreed to plan a meeting next month.

The meeting is one of several that Fresno Unified officials are hosting with parents, union groups and other organizations this spring. Townsend said the meetings are intended to make the budget-setting process more transparent.

"We've always had to make a budget, we've always had to make our budget public, but now what (the state is) saying is, 'In addition to that, you need to come up with a plan that's a narrative that ties directly back to how you're going to spend the money.' "

Called the Local Control Funding Formula, the new way of funding education is intended to give districts more spending flexibility.

Last week, the state Board of Education added some strings to how districts can use the funds. The rules are geared toward ensuring the dollars are used on the kids they're supposed to serve, while giving districts with high poverty rates enough leeway to spend as they see fit.

That's worrisome to some who attended Thursday's event, who said they think the district will have too much discretion and will spend the cash on districtwide initiatives.

Kista Holani, local chapter president of the California Youth Connection foster care group, said she thinks the funds should be funneled toward specific initiatives, like hiring more school counselors for foster kids.

Holani, 18, used to live in foster care. In her experience, she said, there's too few school counselors who know the ins and outs of the children's social services system.

Others said they'd like to use the money to educate parents, particularly those not fluent in English, about how to get involved in their children's schools.

"We're seeing interest (from parents) but the access points aren't there," said Linda Gleason, director of The Children's Movement.

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

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