Soapbox

School district forced to spend state funds on high-needs students

Abre’ Conner
Abre’ Conner

The Local Control Funding Formula was enacted in California to provide much-needed funding to help school districts address the needs of low-income students, English learners and foster children.

Because Central Valley students are in such need of this support, the ACLU of Northern California made it a priority to ensure the Fresno Unified School District would spend the money wisely.

Last year, after reviewing the spending plan, we discovered that the Fresno school district intended to spend the money on police services and school improvements, so the ACLU filed a formal complaint against the district. We believed, along with many other community groups, parents, families and concerned residents, that the district wasn’t properly using LCFF money generated to focus on the success of high-need students. Unfortunately, the district ignored our initial complaint, so we appealed the decision to California Department of Education.

Sparked by this complaint, the Department of Education in an unprecedented move, sent the district its decision demanding that it revise its school spending plan.

This sends a clear message to Fresno Unified and school districts across the state: Trustees and elected school officials need to be more accountable and more transparent in how they spend the millions of dollars intended to help English learners, foster youth and low-income students.

Fresno Unified’s administration thought it could get away with spending the money how it chose, rather than how the law intends. Among other things, the district used the money to pay for expanding the use of programs like Shotspotter, a bullet-tracking system used by the Fresno Police Department and to hire school resource officers.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Education agreed with the ACLU that the district failed to justify how hiring more officers would help high-need students. We believe that more police officers on campus can actually be a detriment, particularly for this group of learners.

Our students need more counselors, qualified teachers and support personnel. Our students do not need a beefed-up police presence. School police officers often have little or no training working with young people. As a result, students, especially students of color and students with disabilities, are far more likely to be subject to discipline, suspension and even arrest as a result of misbehavior. Harsh punishment does not help students thrive but, rather, increases their chances of dropping out or getting in trouble with the law.

We must continue to be vigilant. The ACLU and partner organizations are watching the LCFF process closely, especially now as districts are creating their spending plans. This is an important demand rendered by Sacramento, and we will make sure it’s followed.

According to a story in The Fresno Bee, “Fresno Unified Chief Financial Officer Ruthie Quinto said in an email that the district will make the state’s recommended adjustments before approving the 2017-18 (spending plan).”

The district cannot adopt its 2017-18 spending plan and annual update without correcting these problems. It also must share its new findings with parent committees and the public. If the district cannot revise the problems, those expenditures cannot be used. The Department of Education will monitor whether the district makes the changes.

It’s too bad that community groups and families need to enlist the help of statewide agencies to force the district to do its job. But we look forward to working with a more transparent and more accountable Fresno Unified School District to make sure our highest-need students get the services that they actually need.

The Local Control Funding Formula decision is a first of its kind and critical civil rights victory for our state’s most underserved students. We must ensure the money is used for the students it was intended for. We’ll be watching.

Abre’ Conner is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. She can be contacted at aconner@aclunc.org.

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