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For School Districts, Time Really Is Money

Funding: Making sure students get exactly enough minutes in the classroom earns bonus state dollars for their campuses. Being a few minutes off can cost thousands.

September 08, 1997|LISA FERNANDEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Minutes count.

Good athletes can run a mile in less than four minutes. Cooks swear it takes about 12 minutes to make a hard-boiled egg.

But who knew that high schoolers have to sit through 64,800 minutes per year of instruction for their schools to get paid bonus money?

"Instructional minutes," as they are called in the education code books, are the state's way of making sure students get the proper amount of teaching time.

And if school districts follow these persnickety rules, they are rewarded with "incentive funding," on top of the money they already get for average daily attendance, said Jenny Singh, associate program analyst for the state Department of Education.

Districts in California get anywhere from $28 to $160 a year per student if their instructional minutes add up. Each district painstakingly calculates their number, knowing that the prize can be many thousands of dollars.

Trustees are especially sensitive in the Oak Park Unified School District, where the fussy 60-second issue almost cost them dearly two years ago.

Supt. Marilyn Lippiatt recently assured the school board that the 3,200-student school district was clinging closely to the state-recommended minutes. There would be no foul-ups like the one in 1995, when the district came close to a mistake that could have cost thousands of dollars.

*

An auditing firm discovered that one of the schools in the district had a passing period of 10 minutes after lunch.

So far, so good.

But students normally had five minutes to get to their next class between bells.

According to the rules, passing periods must all be the same length. If it takes five minutes for students to cross the campus, then there is usually no reason for it ever to be longer, Singh said.

Of course, there are always exceptions.

She cited one school district where the students had to get to a class by crossing a highway. In that case, the state allowed students to take longer to get to class, penalty-free, during high-traffic times.

Districts often find creative ways to juggle the lineup in order to reach the right equation.

Oak Park officials caught their problem after 150 days of bell-ringing inequity. The district solved its problem before the end of the year by finagling some minutes in a nutrition class, Lippiatt said.

"We all know what the requirements are," Lippiatt said, "but it's awfully easy to miscalculate or misunderstand the rules."

Oxnard Elementary School District faces an unusual instructional minute scenario each year. Because the 17 schools operate year-round, instructional minutes are not always equal--a requirement for the incentive funding--among the schools. So, the district must ask for a routine waiver. Sandra Herrera, assistant superintendent for fiscal services, said all the schools either meet or exceed the required instructional minutes.

"One school might be four minutes longer and another might be five minutes longer," she said. One of the most potentially egregious goofs happened in Los Angeles, according to John Gilroy of the state Department of Education.

The pope visited the city several years ago. Schools were told that they could allow students to cut class, but only if they made it up some time during the year. All the kindergarten classes in the district--except one--scheduled the extra day. According to the books, the entire grade level for the district should have been penalized for the error of one class, which would have cost millions of dollars in lost money, Gilroy said.

But the state Board of Education was sympathetic and only took incentive funds away from that one particular class, costing them a couple of thousand dollars, he said. As the rules go, if one class messes up, all the other classes in that grade level should be penalized too.

Sure, it seems like an arcane subject.

*

But instructional minutes are a hot topic, according to Heidi Wadsworth, editor of the Waiver Bulletin, a monthly Sacramento-based newsletter dedicated to summarizing schools' requests to forgo penalties.

In the last year, the state Department of Finance has been putting pressure on the 11-member Board of Education not to allow so many fee waivers, Wadsworth said.

In July, 143 waivers were allowed, eight being instructional-minute waivers. Because the Board of Education has been lenient in allowing school districts to get off the hook--either by forgiving previous pass-time slip-ups or allowing future class-shortening requests--stricter guidelines were clarified early this year, determining what waivers are necessary and what excuses are just not good enough.

There are obvious reasons for granting waivers--a school fire, a natural disaster, or requirements for removal of asbestos, for example, Singh said.

But the point of instructional minutes is not to get out of them--and Yvonne Larsen, president of the state Board of Education, announced this month that the board will start granting fewer waiver requests.

"Instructional minutes are supposed to mean that there's more opportunity for learning," Singh said. "And the state decided that we're going to make you stick to it."

*

In 1983, the Legislature decided to improve overall graduate requirements, creating a minimum number of minutes students should receive each year. Kindergartners should get 36,000 instructional minutes per year; first- and second-graders, 50,400; third- through eighth-graders, 54,000; and high schoolers, 64,800.

Adhering to these minutes isn't mandatory, but schools don't get paid the incentive money if they don't meet the minimum requirements. They also don't get paid extra if they exceed the number of teaching minutes.

It's worth it to watch the clock, Singh said. "You could lose out on quite a lot of money if you miscalculate your bell schedule."

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