Special Report
School & District Management

Amid Fiscal Crisis, L.A. Gives Site Councils Budget Reins

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 14, 2009 8 min read
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In theory, it is every school’s dream to control its own destiny, rather than having administrators impose spending plans and reform initiatives from the central office.

At Jefferson High School, one of the largest high schools here, a governing body made up of teachers, nonclassroom-based educators, parents, and Principal Michael Taft appears to be living the dream, to the extent such a thing is possible during a staggering fiscal crisis.

The leadership team, officially known as a “school site council,” has mainly used an infusion of federal stimulus funding to keep class sizes around 25 students. With its remaining money, it has preserved a successful “eighth period”—a mandatory after-school class for students struggling to pass the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE, a graduation prerequisite.

The example sums up the goal of district leaders, who have allotted nearly $114 million in Title I economic-stimulus funds to school site councils like the one at Jefferson High to spend on their own needs.

Decentralized Decisionmaking

According to the California Education Code, school site councils are elected bodies charged with setting and measuring the effectiveness of improvement strategies at the school, seeking input from other school advisory committees, revising strategies and expenditures, and creating and monitoring the approved “single plan for student achievement”—a consolidated plan requested of schools receiving state or federal school improvement funding.

The councils are made up of:

• The principal

• Representatives of teachers selected by teachers at the school

• Other school personnel selected by peers at the school

• Parents of students attending the school selected by such parents

• Students selected by students attending the school (at the middle and high school levels)

Middle and high school councils are composed to ensure parity among the principal, classroom teachers, and other school personnel. additionally, they must ensure that equal numbers of parents or other community members selected by parents and students serve on the council.

SOURCE: California Education Code

“If parents and the community feel they have some responsibility, they’ll be accountable for the direction of the school,” said Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent of the district. “When [a school] is faced with the draconian cuts I’ve made, ... [it] needs parents and the community to be engaged and involved on an ongoing basis.”

Decentralization has long been a rallying cry among constituents in this sprawling district of 700,000 students. But as some Los Angeles educators are discovering, it pays to be careful what you wish for.

The influx of money this year through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act carries much higher stakes for the site councils for several reasons. First, the funding will double some schools’ typical Title I allocations, and thus it will be closely scrutinized.

These are not funds for a rainy day; they are a stopgap. In preparing budgets, the councils have had to determine how many teaching positions to preserve, how small they can afford to keep class sizes, and which local initiatives are worth saving. Many are making those decisions for the first time.

In effect, the district has spread the decision about cutting programs and personnel from seven school board members to 700 councils.

The decentralization has been praised by some Los Angeles administrators for moving instructional policy closer to the schools. But it has raised the hackles of other administrators, some parent groups, and the teachers’ union.

“There was no transition plan to develop the capacity of these schools that in some cases received an embarrassment of riches,” said Bill Ring, who heads TransParent, a grassroots organization that seeks to increase parents’ voices in school decisions.

Back and Forth

Required by the California Education Code, the school site councils have been around since the 1970s. But the discretionary pots of money they oversee typically wax and wane depending on the current district leadership. Some superintendents have funneled more discretionary funding, including federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students, to the councils; others have chosen to manage those funds centrally.

Mr. Cortines, who became the district chief in 2008, has generally favored a more localized approach to school instruction. Previously, during a stint as Los Angeles’ interim superintendent, in 2000, he broke the district into subdistricts, each overseen by a superintendent.

His latest push for decentralizing is unusual, though, not only for the amount of money involved, but also in its timing.

As the councils geared up to meet this spring, Los Angeles officials watched as their tax revenues dropped and as Sacramento made a succession of cuts to state funding. To reduce the resulting shortfall, the school board canceled programming, sent out more than 4,000 layoff notices to teachers, and pared the central-office staff. Upon receiving its first stimulus allocations, the district put most of its state-stabilization money and eligible money from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act toward its bottom-line deficit. But officials also decided to pass the Title I stimulus dollars to the councils, rather than filling in holes centrally.

With the money, schools could, for instance, “buy back” classroom teaching positions that had been eliminated under the central budget. Alternatively, they could choose to maintain after-school tutoring, preserve the jobs of school psychologists and counselors, or hire instructional coaches to help teachers make sense of the data from periodic student assessments.

More Discretionary Aid

In addition, the district liquidated a centrally run coaching program and federal Title II teacher-quality funding and disbursed those dollars to schools—a change officials said provided more discretionary aid to schools receiving small or no allocations under Title I.

The district, the Los Angeles teachers’ union, and others collaborated on a series of training sessions for school-site-council personnel, beginning last winter. Part of that training included mock council meetings to give educators clear examples of good and poor collaborative decisionmaking.

Mr. Cortines also gave each school a lot of data on student demographics and test scores to help the councils as they set their budgets.

Mr. Taft, the Jefferson High principal, and members of that school’s team—while not in agreement on every detail—felt it was worthwhile to maintain classroom teaching positions and the eighth period, and they had three years of higher scores to back up their decisions.

“Because of the success we’ve had, our parents are getting more involved in their child’s education,” Mr. Taft said. “When their child comes home and says he passed the math portion of the CAHSEE, that’s like handing them a $20 bill. They can see it, they can feel it, they understand it.”

But others say that Mr. Taft’s experience has been the exception, not the norm. Mr. Ring of the parents’ group said that the district’s efforts to build schools’ capacity to spend the money wisely have so far only scratched the surface.

“It’s exposure, not culture change,” he said of the training.

The teachers’ union, meanwhile, has grown increasingly critical of the plan, saying it has unnecessarily compromised teachers’ jobs and raised class sizes. District figures show that schools have kept a significant number of nonclassroom positions, such as coaches.

The district, officials of United Teachers Los Angeles say, shouldhave spent the stimulus money centrally to ensure a minimum class size for all elementary students and to preserve more classroom teaching positions.

“I honestly don’t think Ray [Cortines] understood that you can’t just snap your fingers and go turn an authoritarian system into a decentralized one,” said Daniel Barnhart, a UTLA board member.

The union has also accused the district of pressuring principals on the councils to maintain reading coaches over classroom teachers, and it has filed 17 grievances alleging that schools didn’t staff or conduct their councils in accordance with state law.

“Decentralization is illusory,” said Sean Leys, a teacher at Lincoln High School who went on a well-publicized hunger strike to protest the layoffs. “Without a doubt, there are hundreds of school councils that show no oversight because they have no idea what the role of the council is.”

District Response

Monica Garcia, the president of the Los Angeles school board, concedes that the district has more work to do on training. But she argues that the district’s centrally mandated strategies were not always effective for all schools.

Schools likely to benefit most under the shift are big high schools like Jefferson, which serves 2,800 students, many disadvantaged. At Jefferson, Mr. Taft estimates that during the upcoming school year, the council will oversee a total of $8 million to $9 million in regular Title I money, stimulus funding, and other state and federal bilingual education grants, for instance.

“For the first time, our large high schools have a good chunk of money to do things with,” Ms. Garcia said. “I think that is probably the silver lining, that these large underperforming high schools got attention on what they needed, rather than what we prescribed.”

And district officials flatly deny the union’s charge that they have acted as puppetmaster over councils and principals.

“It’s very frustrating because [the union] supported decentralization in 2000,” Mr. Cortines said. “But it came to the bottom line. If [the council] didn’t spend the money the way UTLA wanted, it was wrong.”Michelle King, a local area superintendent in west Los Angeles, said that schools there did make classroom teachers a priority.

But councils nevertheless struggled with the buy-back process because of seniority provisions in the district contract, she said. Local schools budget classroom “positions,” so buy-backs do not guarantee the return of beloved instructors—merely teachers who fit the appropriate categories and are next on the seniority roll.

“I think of all the messages, that was the one we had to repeat over and over,” Ms. King said.

Still, Ms. King expects councils to take on more responsibilities over time, such as promoting school safety and ensuring spending is aligned with academic goals.

“[Decentralization] was a shock to the system, but it’s something the community has been asking for a long time,” she said.

Observers hope for the best, but some harbor doubts. David Tokofsky, a consultant for the principals’ union and a former school board member, worries not just about the logistics of the move, but has a philosophical concern, too.

While it may complete Mr. Cortines’ long-held decentralization plans, it may not satisfy the reform-minded rhetoric coming from President Barack Obama’s administration on the use of stimulus funds, he suggested.

“They say all politics are local politics. Well, in Los Angeles, we say all politics are ‘loco’ politics,” Mr. Tokofsky said. “And right now, the politics of the past are racing forward at the very time that Obama is putting more money and attention toward education.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Amid Fiscal Crisis, L.A. Gives Site Councils Budget Reins

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