Open Reporting: Inside my quest to unravel school funding

This post is part of our Open Reporting at CALmatters, in which we share progress on stories as we’re developing them, while also inviting you to share thoughts and comments to help inform our research. Our goal: more transparent and effective journalism. We welcome your feedback.

Every person has a right to inspect any public record during a public agency’s normal business hours.

That’s what the California’s Public Records Act promises, with a few exceptions, but it’s not what I got in January when I visited two Los Angeles County school districts and asked to review their budgets.

My requests were denied and I was turned away.

The two districts—Paramount Unified and Lennox Elementary—eventually released the contested records, but the saga is emblematic of an access problem so serious that it has become a surprisingly large part of my upcoming story on the school funding formula California adopted more than three years ago.

The formula, which aims to close a wide achievement gap among California students, directs extra cash to districts with high concentrations of students from low-income families, foster youth and kids learning English. The policy was championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and its success or failure will be part of his legacy once he leaves office in two years.

I set out to answer what I thought were a few simple questions: How much money has the state invested in the biggest districts with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged students? What did school officials spend it on? What have they accomplished so far?

They’re the kind of questions that any parent may want to ask about the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, but the answers have been far tougher to pin down than I could have imagined.

My first roadblock was here in Sacramento at the governor’s Department of Finance.

Every school district gets a certain amount of money called base funding, which is calculated using attendance data. The new formula layers on additional funding, called supplemental and concentration grants, for districts with large shares of needy students. I asked the department for spreadsheets showing how much grant money was delivered—was the new funding a pittance or a windfall?

No such luck. Although the funding formula is a state policy, state officials don’t track the streams of money individually. Finance officials suggested I look for answers in school districts’ Local Control Accountability Plans, and that’s where I faced my next challenge.

These documents are supposed to help parents and community members understand districts’ priorities and how they’re spending public money to attain their goals. But most are hundreds of pages long and filled with technical language an average reader could never decipher.

Fortunately, one part of the document requires districts to report the amount of supplemental and concentration grant funding they receive.

Unfortunately, they aren’t required to specify the share of that money that’s new, making it impossible to track the state’s additional investment year to year.

Unable to find what I’d been looking for in a public record or a database, I tried going directly to the local districts themselves—contacting 15 school systems and asking how much of each type of funding they had received, what they spent it on, and what they had achieved so far.

That was two months ago, and I have little more information now than when I placed those first few calls.

More than half of the districts refused to respond to any of my questions. A few would only say how much extra money for needy students they had received, not how they had spent it. Others complained about the burden I had placed on them by asking the questions.

“I’m going to see if that’s something we can identify without going through a forensic audit,” said Marlene Dunn, the chief business officer for Lynwood Unified School District, located in Los Angeles County. “It could take a couple hundred hours of staff time to give you that information in that manner. You’re asking us to go back in time and find something we didn’t track.”

So what do I know about how districts spent the tens of billions of dollars in funding that schools have received since the state adopted the new formula?

I’m still trying to learn more. Stay tuned for the full story CALmatters is set to publish soon.

California school funding series

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