Report: school funds outpaced by cost of necessary programs

Report: school funds outpaced by cost of necessary programs

(Calif.) A new survey suggests that while California has steadily increased per-pupil funding since the recession, districts are still struggling to make ends meet, leaving school business leaders scrambling for solutions.

The findings come from interviews with school administrators from 17 school districts and three county offices of education by researchers from WestEd.

“These rising expenses have included increases of approximately 49 percent for employee benefits, 21 percent for teacher salaries and 75 percent for books and supplies,” authors of the report wrote. “Many California school districts are struggling to cover such rising costs as they outpace increases in state revenues.”

Education funding declined during the recession—with a drop of nearly $600 per student—from close to $10,300 in 2008 to about $9,700 in 2012, adjusted for inflation.

In 2013, lawmakers overhauled the state’s funding distribution formula for the first time in nearly 40 years in an effort to create a more equitable funding system that provides more for schools with high rates of at-risk subgroups including foster youth, English learners and students with disabilities.

Since enactment of the Local Control Funding Formula, state support for schools has increased each year with the 2018-19 state budget provided funding to fully fund the LCFF two years before it was projected to reach target funding levels. Additionally, the state has provided one-time discretionary funding for school districts each year since 2014 to support implementation of major state and local policy initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards.

Researchers noted that the current budget challenges facing school districts are different now in that California is not in the midst of an economic crisis. In fact, authors of the report said, the current economic climate in California is quite healthy. But increasing expenses for services such as special education programs and for maintaining aging facilities, as well as escalating pension contributions, employee health care, and recruiting and retaining quality staff have outpaced increases in state revenues.

Findings were drawn from interviews with more than 25 school business leaders from school districts and county offices of education throughout the state, as well as past research. Interviews took place between early 2016 and June, 2018.

The analysis  showed that in many districts, efforts to combat budget deficits often relied on increased community outreach and cooperation with stakeholders and local organizations. To increase program effectiveness, for example, school leaders reported doing more to strengthen connections between business and educational services, while others emphasized creating an inclusive budget development process by building relationships with stakeholders.

Others, meanwhile, reported working to better use data to measure the effectiveness of investments by tracking the quality of programs rather than just the quantity of services offered. Other common methods revolved around increasing efficiency by streamlining administrative processes, reducing costs for utilities and transportation expenses, and maximizing revenues by improving student attendance.

The authors did say there was a silver lining to these budget difficulties. Namely, that district officials are pushed to make some of the tougher decisions that can benefit students in the long run.

“Research suggests that budget crises can create new opportunities to disrupt status quo programs and budgeting practices, and can prompt a shift to a more strategic approach to resource management,” the WestEd team wrote. “While some districts have systems in place to regularly measure and evaluate the impact of their investments, the budget crises emerging in districts throughout California provide an additional impetus to focus on the impact of investments.”

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