Fresno Unified in trouble for spending money meant for at-risk students on police, bathrooms

The California Department of Education is demanding that Fresno Unified revise its school spending plan after the district used state money meant for poor, minority students to pay for police programs and bathroom renovations, among other things.

According to a letter sent to Fresno Unified by state officials, the district failed to justify how its plans for funding it received to help high-risk students would actually benefit those schoolchildren.

Under the state funding formula, school districts get extra money depending on the number of low-income students, English learners and foster children enrolled. But in a complaint filed last year, the American Civil Liberties Union called into question more than $36 million of that funding at Fresno Unified.

The ACLU said that Fresno Unified was too vague about its wide plans for that money, including $5.6 million for bathroom renovations and additional custodians; $5.6 million for a middle school redesign and $3.8 million for school employee support.

Particularly, the ACLU voiced concern about $440,000 worth of that funding budgeted to hire more school resource officers and expand the use of Shotspotter, a bullet-tracking system used by Fresno police.

“Fresno Unified was using funding that was actually generated by high-need students for a lot of different allocations, including for police and security enhancements: exactly the type of thing that hurts students of color and high-need students,” ACLU attorney Abre’ Conner said Tuesday. “The state Department of Education has stated in their ruling that school districts have to actually explain why they’re going to use that funding in that way, or they can’t use it at all.”

Fresno Unified has contended that because 88 percent of its student body classifies as part of that high-risk population, it should be allowed to put the money toward broader district-wide initiatives. The district fought the ACLU’s original allegations, saying that safety was a top concern among community members, and that because violent crime in Fresno is higher than the state average, funding should be used to combat it.

But last week, the state Department of Education agreed with the ACLU, saying that while a high number of at-risk students may be a reason to offer a majority of services for those specific students on a wider basis, Fresno Unified has not provided a sufficient explanation of how those services are “principally directed” to those who need it.

Now, Fresno Unified has to provide those justifications before it adopts its next Local Control and Accountability Plan. The district also has to present that justification and any proposed changes to the public and parent groups before adopting it.

Fresno Unified Chief Financial Officer Ruthie Quinto said in an email Tuesday that the district will make the state’s recommended adjustments before approving the 2017-18 LCAP, and “looks forward to strengthening the LCAP language to ensure it reflects” disadvantaged students. A district representative confirmed some of the money in question had already been spent, while some of it had merely been designated for a specific use.

The ACLU hopes the state’s call for corrective action in Fresno Unified will be used as precedent and will prevent districts from misusing money meant for the state’s neediest.

“Fresno Unified continued to ignore what the community and other advocates were asking for, as far as transparency and accountability goes. The district is going to have to significantly change their approach,” Conner said. “It’s a big deal for all districts across the state because Fresno Unified would point to other districts as an example, but now the CDE is saying all of that is wrong.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays