Four years after Gov. Jerry Brown transformed public school funding in California, it’s nearly impossible to tell where money meant to help the most vulnerable student populations in San Diego Unified is going.
In 2013, the state started to give more money to school districts – particularly those with higher numbers of impoverished students, English-learners and homeless and foster youth – to help close California’s achievement gap. It also gave local districts more flexibility on how to spend the money.
Before, much of the money that flowed to districts arrived in classrooms with prescribed uses, leaving schools and districts with little discretion in how to spend funds.
Advocates, parents and school districts maintain that the change was a step in the right direction. But it remains difficult to gauge exactly what some of the money pays for and the effectiveness of some positions and programs funded.
The San Diego Unified School District will vote to adopt its plan for the funds, called the Local Control and Accountability Plan, for the upcoming school year Tuesday night. According to the document , the district expects just under $1.04 billion in through the state’s funding formula, $125 million of which are specifically for its neediest students.
San Diego Unified has been receiving more of these funds each year for the past four years.
Source: California Department of Education
While the draft LCAP has been circulated in meetings and workshops over the past couple of weeks, parents have been raising questions over the use of the funds, particularly those intended for the district’s disadvantaged students. They’re also concerned that their input hasn’t been taken into account in how the district is spending the money.
“If you can tell me a single paragraph … or a single comma that reflects that engagement, we will be so happy, but it doesn’t exist as per now,” said Dan Nyamangah, a community organizer for SAY San Diego who works with the a group of schools in City Heights, at an LCAP workshop earlier this month.
“No accountability, no detailed budget, why don’t we know where every cent is going?” Tasha Williamson, a community member from the Lincoln cluster, asked at a recent school board meeting.
That’s a question parents, policymakers and advocates have been asking around the state.
Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California , a nonpartisan research organization, and EdTrust West , an Oakland organization focused on educational equity, have found that while high-poverty schools are seeing an influx of cash, there’s been little progress made in closing the achievement gap. A recent CALMatters investigation  found that in 15 high-poverty districts, more money had poured in, but performance in the schools hadn’t improved. Parents and a nonprofit law firm, Public Advocates, filed a complaint  against Long Beach Unified, the third-largest district in the state, in April over the alleged misuse of $41 million in LCAP funds.
The state gives each school district a sum of cash based on enrollment. That’s called “base” funding, and districts can use it for whatever they need. Then there’s a second tier of funding, the supplemental funds, for schools’ low-income students, English-learners and homeless and foster youth. Finally, there are concentration funds, intended for districts with an abundance of those groups of disadvantaged students. The state gives the district money per student, and the students with higher needs get more funds.
San Diego Unified then allocates its money to various positions and programs both in the central office and at individual schools. The money that goes to school sites is determined by how many disadvantaged students each school has.
Here is how that plays out in three San Diego Unified Schools that all have student enrollments of just over 2,000.
Roughly 20 percent of the students at Scripps Ranch High are disadvantaged. The district gives Scripps Ranch $56,289.
Patrick Henry High School has a disadvantaged student population of about 41 percent. Patrick Henry receives $129,951.
Nearly all students at Hoover High School – 92 percent – are disadvantaged. The school receives $293,223 from the district.
Some of the complaints about the funding intended for disadvantaged students focus on how much the district gives to school sites versus how much it spends in the central office or on districtwide programs.
At a recent school board meeting, Lindsay Burningham, president of the San Diego Educators Association, implored the district to spend more funds at school sites.
“We have fought hard to get additional supports for students that are generating this ‘supplemental and concentration’ funding,” Burningham said. “There is a one-size-fits-all approach and really, if we’re going to meet the needs of our students, we need to be more community-based schools. … Our members continue to see the centralization of services instead of more bodies at the schools sites working directly with the student.”
When asked for a breakdown of funds spent on school sites versus districtwide initiatives, the district told me, “Our current reporting mechanisms do not capture this data.”
Here is what I could figure out.
In the 2016-2017 LCAP, more than $120 million in supplemental funds for needy students went toward districtwide programs and goals.
According to data  from each school’s 2016 budget summary , roughly $11.3 million in discretionary funds are going to school sites. That’s about 10 percent of the total funds given to the district for vulnerable students. The top recipients were Hoover High, Morse High, Lincoln High, and Rosa Parks Elementary.
The district also assigns certain staff positions, funded by the pot of money for disadvantaged students, to school sites. Individual schools don’t have any discretion in how those funds are used, but the schools receive counselors, librarians and other positions paid for by the funds. About $33.7 million – or roughly 30 percent of the state money for needy students – went to school sites that way. Rosa Parks Elementary received the most funding through those positions, just over $2 million.
There is more transparency in how the funds earmarked for vulnerable students are used at school sites.
School Site Councils, made up of parents, community members, principals, teachers, other staff and administrators – and in high schools, students – help figure out how to use the funds. You can see line items that account for each expenditure in budget transaction reports  and a document called the Single Plan for Student Achievement , where schools have to show how the funds will help them meet the goals laid out for their needy populations.
The quality of the reports, though, varies by site – and nearly any use of the funds can be justified. For example, Barnard Elementary  spent $2,000 on copy paper and $3,169 on conferences (there’s no explanation provided of who attends the conferences, or the kind of conference). Scripps Ranch High School  spent $2,557 on “supplies” — no further explanation. Expenditures like that could ostensibly help the school’s disadvantaged students, but they’re vague.
As for districtwide funds, it’s pretty much impossible to get a line-by-line account – and that’s where the majority of funds are allocated. About 90 percent of the funds for needy students are controlled by the district and not by individual schools – and roughly 60 percent of those are district-centralized programs and positions.
When a district has more than 55 percent of students who fall into a disadvantaged category – San Diego Unified has 62 percent – the state allows it to make districtwide expenditures to benefit those students.
The district said it uses the funds to “support districtwide services such as the visual and performing arts, lower class sizes, positive behavioral interventions and support, restorative justice practices, health and wellness support and services, social and emotional services, and so on.”
But some of the money accounted for in the central office is still concentrated in high-needs school sites, the district said. For example, certain positions on the central office payroll may travel to multiple schools, prioritizing sites with higher needs.
Unlike with individual schools, though, there’s no descriptive accounting for each program and position funded by those dollars. And under current state rules, the district isn’t doing anything wrong. The state isn’t asking districts for more detail.
The district said it can be held accountable by its achievement outcomes.
San Diego Unified touts its increase in third grade reading scores for black students, which it said climbed 10 points last year, a dramatic increase in English-learners meeting state and district English proficiency standards in recent years and its graduation rate  for both groups.
But San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber is among the loudest voices demanding more accountability for the funds themselves.
A state bill  written by Weber would impose higher fiscal transparency requirements on school funding.
“I could not tell you with any confidence that the money meant to go with kids to special needs is going where it’s supposed to go,” Weber said. “We shouldn’t fund a low student-teacher ratio across the district. The special grants were built around the idea that it takes more money to equalize a situation and create a level playing field for these kids.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said parents and a nonprofit sued Long Beach Unified over its use of LCAP funds. They filed an administrative complaint with the district and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.