Trustee gives history of school funding

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Trustee gives history of school fundingWhile earthquake recovery efforts play out in the background, the steady growth of Sierra Sands Unified School District has leadership planning for a facilities plan that will meet the needs of the future as well as those of the present.

After a gradual decline in enrollment for nearly two decades, SSUSD enters its sixth successive increase as the student tally tops 5,200.

As the expectations of public schools continue to evolve, Sierra Sands officials endeavor to refine the delivery of education in an ever-changing landscape.

During a recent presentation to the Ridgecrest Exchange Club, SSUSD Board Trustee Bill Farris outlined how changing funding models, mandates and accountability structures have influenced the landscape of public education.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, California was a leader in education, and was among the top 10-15 percent of states ranked by their funding dollars allocated to K-12 education.

A 1971 court decision, Serrano v. Priest, recognized that although California had some fine educational processes, its funding model favored affluent cities and neighborhoods.

So instead of funding education solely through local property taxes, legislators established a minimum level of funding that could be augmented by state funding for communities that could not achieve the threshold.

A few years later, Proposition 13 was implemented. “This drove two major changes,” said Farris. “It put a cap on the increase in property taxes, and required two-thirds-majority support to pass new taxes.”

That fundamental change to the tax model reduced the revenue base that had historically funded education. “So there were fewer dollars going to our schools,” said Farris, but the increased dependence on income taxes, versus property taxes, also introduced more volatility into the funding system.

The state legislature typically built its budget based on the level of income that came in during a given year. In years of high revenue, new programs were created based on that availability of funding. The problem, said Farris, is that revenues to support those programs did not always continue to flow in at the same level.

“So in bad years, you had these horrific adjustments to make — which is very hard on our systems.

During this same time period, the state of California was also increasing mandates, which gave school districts less flexibility to resolve problems at the local level.

“With that increase in dominance of our state over school systems came their ability to say, ‘If you don’t meet our standards, we are not giving you the money.’”

Another watershed moment in California education came in 2008, when our state’s — and county’s —housing market and economy took hits. As California struggled to remain solvent, educational programs and funding took significant hits.

“But we also got Jerry Brown as governor.”

Brown took a notably moderate fiscal position — eschewing the historic spending habits of many of his fellow Democrats. He cut state spending and established a rainy-day fund to set aside revenues in good years to help alleviate the negative impact of bad years.

He introduced policies that allowed local districts to resolve their own challenges.

“Brown also understood that it doesn’t cost the same to educate each child, because for some the need is greater than others,” said Farris. To address those, he identified three areas of concentrated funding for youth in foster programs, those living in poverty and those still learning English.

Since the reporting system for economically challenged families depends on volunteer participation, SSUSD struggled at first to demonstrate the population in each of those three concentrations. However, said Farris, staff developed a system to better document these demographics.

The district subsequently procured the funds to implement programs that better serve at-risk youth.

Sierra Sands implemented the “Late-Start Wednesday” program to allow teachers a collaborative time to compare notes, best practices and strategies to serve individual student needs.

“We have already seen improved performances” Not just in the most vulnerable students, but across the board, said Farris.

“There is a carry-over value for all students,” he said. “Focusing on ensuring education to those in greatest need has also given us the tools to deliver, monitor and measure growth in all of our students.”

Farris acknowledged that public education has often been referred to as the great equalizer in modern society. Because of that, focus has shifted from “equal” to “equity” — meaning helping students achieve similar outcomes, not just the same amount of resources.

“The reality that we must face, given the great diversity experienced in our schools, is that we need our systems to be more creative in finding ways to address the needs.”

Offsetting the district’s historic disadvantage in funding are Sierra Sands’ successful efforts to identify potential for community partnerships and grant opportunities to improve existing facilities.

More than a decade ago, SSUSD’s Measure A was passed. The measure generated about $100 million in revenue to upgrade and modernize existing campuses. Another $3-million grant helped build the state-of-the art Career Technical Education Building at Burroughs High School.

A Department of Defense grant aimed at improving military-impacted schools fueled a $70-million effort to modernize BHS and move the Murray Middle School campus off base and into the community. (The district is also in the beginning stage of doing the same for Richmond ElementarySchool.)

Dr. David Ostash, who stepped in as SSUSD superintendent just three days before the earthquakes struck, is already in the throes of working with the board and staff to construct a 10-year facilities master plan.

“We need to have a thorough analysis of our facilities’ needs so that a prioritized list of safety and deferred maintenance items can be identified. With a plan, the district can best serve the needs of our students today and well into the future,” said Ostash.

“Schools are a community asset that serve not only the academic needs of our students, but also an enhanced quality of life for our community.

“The performing arts center, our athletic stadium and many other large spaces throughout the district are regularly leased to service organizations, performing arts groups and many other community-based organizations,” said Ostash.

“We look to provide safe and quality facilities for our students and for our community as we move ahead into the 21st century.”

Pictured: Sierra Sands Unified School District Board Trustee Bill Farris. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-09-06