Fresno Unified trustees look at options to help at-risk students

The Fresno BeeMay 14, 2014 

Fresno Unified School District would spend $1.5 million on restorative discipline programs for students with poor behavior and expand summer school opportunities for English-language learners under a proposal outlining how it would use several million extra dollars it's getting under the state's new Local Control Funding Formula.

The moves discussed by district trustees Wednesday are part of a comprehensive package that will be voted on in June, and are intended to level the educational playing field for low-income, English learners and foster students. But the discussion came with a warning: A recent state proposal that would shoulder districts with paying millions more annually for employee pensions threatens to derail Fresno Unified's plan, officials said.

Districts like Fresno Unified with high numbers of at-risk youngsters are now getting more state money and flexibility under the new local control spending plan passed by lawmakers last summer. The district got about $28 million extra this year under the new formula. Officials have estimated Fresno Unified will get another $58 million next school year.

The district's spending proposal, called its Local Control Accountability Plan, spells out several suggestions, including a $5.1 million investment in training for teachers and more than $400,000 to hire four social workers for foster students.

The district would also spend several million more on existing programs. About $3.2 million would go toward student mentor and discipline programs and $7.4 million would help expand preschool enrollment. Money would also be set aside for career technical education and improving campus security.

More than $20 million would be spent on a slew of initiatives that district officials are pitching as part of their disputed contract proposal with teachers, including a plan to lengthen school days by 30 minutes at certain schools.

District officials have met with community groups over the past several months to hash out the details. But some say even after all the talks, the district's proposal is too vague.

For example, the plan would add $2 million for the district's Parent University -- which offers parent workshops and other services -- but Maria Ceballos, Reading and Beyond community connection coordinator, said "that's not what the community and parents were asking for."

"What the community and parents were asking for was somebody at the school site who spoke their language," she said, referencing parents who speak a language other than English. "It's more than understanding their language. They wanted to feel trust with somebody at the schools."

Trustee Cal Johnson said he'd support more funding for bilingual staff.

Ceballos said she was pleased with other parts of the plan, like a move to expand summer school opportunities for English learners.

Rhea Martin, lead organizer for the Fresno chapter of Californians for Justice, said she's concerned the plan includes too few dollars for restorative discipline practices, which use conflict resolution instead of suspensions or expulsions to address students' bad behavior.

Miriam Hernandez, program assistant with the Youth Leadership Institute, supported more restorative practice funding, but added she'd like more clarity on how the dollars will be spent.

State budget proposal

A revised state budget plan unveiled by Gov. Jerry Brown this week could threaten the district's spending proposal, said Ruth Quinto, district chief financial officer.

School districts could be faced with contributing several more million dollars each year to employee pension plans, she said, which could force the redirection of the local control dollars.

Districts pay about 8.3% of the pension cost now -- that number could escalate to more than 19% within a few years if lawmakers green-light the governor's plan, Quinto said.

That's alarming, several trustees said.

"It's disheartening," said trustee Janet Ryan. "Normally I'm very excited about talking about the budget, even in the difficult years. It's sad to see this uncertainty and see school districts are going to be expected to fund so much of these liabilities the state has incurred."

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

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