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.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

“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.

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    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Let's make this abdundantly clear, parents do not know they have so much increased power. Their tax dollars are not at work, and they don't know it because the schools do NOT want them to KNOW it. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Riddle me this. Under the new formula and the additional monies how much more is the CALSTRS going to require of districts and teachers to pay when the get around to addressing the required increased contributions?

    Districts and teachers are going to pay more that is a given. The question is how much and is it the real reason around the new formula?

    DDunn subscriber

    Please, no blanket statements!! Less well performing schools often have the best and most experienced teachers - and the high performance schools owe more to involved parents than to the teachers. Low performing schools offer a much more challenging situation and environment that requires a higher degree of individualized and differential planning - most can't hack it and look for the first opportunity to get out. Sorry, that the way it goes.


    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    Parents should not put themselves in the position to fight over the crumbs, while 90% of the budget goes for salaries and pension benefits.  The new focus on the achievement gap for the remaining 10% of the budget rather than excellence with lead to a further decline in the public schools and little reform generated by local control.

    Unequal funding of the public schools WILL reduce the achievement gap in the District.  This inequality of funding will lead to more Gate, Seminar, and high achievement students switching to private. religious and charter schools were they will receive an appropriate level of instruction and resources not available from public schools, who place education secondary to social engineering.

    -P subscriber

    @Richard Bagnell  On the other hand, there's the system that they use in a place that ranks much more highly in global educational ranking than the US.  Canada really works at getting economic equality spread out provincially, far beyond local school districts, so that funding is not determined by local property taxes, and it works for them.

    And then there's the example of the country whose schools are the ranked the best of all, Finland. All of the schools a equitably funded, all students recieve a free meal daily, as well as free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling. Yet, curricularly speaking, the controls are on the local level.

    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    @-P @Richard Bagnell  I could accept either Canada's or Finland's system but California has decided to fund schools and students unequally. The state will  give more funds to English learning students and poorly preforming schools and students and less money to high performing public schools and students.   All property taxes are pooled in California and high property tax area don't get more funds per student (and now they get less per student). 

    -P subscriber

    @Richard Bagnell @-P  true. but the less well performing schools tend to have worse facilities, less experienced teachers, etc. I know anecdotes don't count for much other than  sympathy when talking about system wide issues, but I'm going to use one anyway. The parent of one of my kid's friends was a long term substitute teacher (which means being assigned to a particular class for months at a time) who told me of one time when the assignment came the day before the school year began. When instruction started there was no furniture in the room, and not enough books.