As San Diego Unified anticipates new funding streams from Sacramento, a scuttle is growing over how to best keep track of the money.

Last summer, Gov. Jerry Brown approved the Local Control Funding Formula, a new way of shuttling money to school districts based on their individual needs. The new system also eliminates a crusty and convoluted way of determining the money districts get.

That’s good news for a large urban district like San Diego Unified. Many of its students qualify for the additional funding set aside for foster youth, English learners or students from low-income families. LCFF means more money.

To be sure, the new formula makes good on its namesake by giving local districts more flexibility in how they use their resources. It doesn’t, however, mean individual schools have more control of their funding.

That’s raised concerns about transparency from groups like UpforEd and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, who say the community needs to ensure the district is being a good steward of public money.

They’ve pulled together a coalition, which ranges from the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties to the League of Women Voters, to help bring more people into the conversation and spread information.

“Instead of the state looking over the district’s shoulder, it needs to be the community that’s watching,” said Sean Karafin, interim president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

“If there isn’t accurate and clear reporting, we’ll never know if the money’s getting to the students who need it,” he said.

Karafin said that transparency means more than putting out complicated documents – it means making that information digestible. To that end, he said he volunteered to help San Diego Unified communicate complicated budget items to the public. The district hasn’t yet taken him up on the offer.

But a spokesman said the district agrees with the recommendations the coalition is making – like engaging parents on an ongoing basis and regularly reporting progress on student achievement.  He said the district is already prepared to implement them.

One of a few strings that come with the new funding is that the district has to make a team of stakeholders – parents and community members – to help craft a plan for how the money will be used.

That roadmap, called the Local Control and Accountability Plan, is a three-year strategy for how the district will do things like engage parents, address the achievement gap or implement the Common Core curriculum.

In short, it’s sort of a blueprint for how the money will be spent.

Since last fall, the district has held a series of community forums in which they asked parents and community members for feedback on priorities. It also reached out to individuals schools, asking principals what their schools needed.

In fact, the district and the coalition aren’t that far apart. While UpforEd Executive Director Lisa Berlanga said the district could be widening its efforts to include more community groups, even she says the district is doing a decent job of crowdsourcing.

But the fact that the coalition continues to grow seems to underscore a deeper tension – one that predates current district leadership: Not everyone trusts the district to make smart decisions with the money.

Berlanga, for example, points to the $115 million budget hole the district is looking at for next year, which she said is largely a result of failing to cut staff it couldn’t afford to pay.

“In the past couple of years there were some difficult decisions to be made. But instead of making them, the district seemed like they were just waiting, wishing for more money.”

School board trustee Scott Barnett has told me the same – a lot.

And even though LCFF is new, in many ways it’s only the latest round of a longstanding contest.

Amy Redding, chair of a district advisory council, said the discussion looks a lot like the argument over Title I funds, federal money set aside for students from low-income families.

Even though that money comes from the federal government, the district makes a call on which schools are funded. The rules are that if 70 percent or more of a school’s students come from low-income families, that school gets Title I funds. But the district can choose to fund schools down to those that have 40 percent of their students in poverty.

Redding, who’s long been involved with Title I oversight, said she’s watched a tug-of-war between the district and its schools happen for years.

“The underlying issue in both these conversations is a question about how the district is using resources,” Redding said.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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