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O.C. School Aid in Works

A one-time legislative outlay would help cushion the blow of a decades-long funding inequity that stems from the county's rural past.

September 02, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Hampered by state funding rates set three decades ago, Orange County schools would be among the biggest beneficiaries of a bill by a Brea legislator that seeks to redistribute $50 million in education funding.

Like other areas of California where suburbs have replaced ranches in recent decades, Orange County is hurt by a 1972 school funding formula that set the annual state payment per child based on what schools were receiving at the time.

Because schools were then primarily funded by property taxes, rural districts--where property tax revenue was low-- were placed at a disadvantage that persisted after housing tracts sprouted on former agricultural land. Disparities between districts were exacerbated when a 1997 law allocated more money to districts with low attendance rates. Often, those were urban districts that already had above-average state funding.

In Orange County, 24 of 27 districts receive below-average funding per pupil from the state, with Irvine Unified and Huntington Beach Union High School districts faring the worst -- more than 3% below the average for comparable districts.

Only three--Los Alamitos Unified, Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified and Newport-Mesa Unified--receive above-average funding.

This year, for example, Capistrano Unified, which primarily serves families living in expensive new subdivisions on former ranch land, was forced by the state budget crisis to cut $22 million from its $300-million budget. By comparison, Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, which includes many long-established neighborhoods, made no serious cuts and even added teachers.

It's a counterintuitive situation: "low-wealth" districts -- so called because they get less funding than the state average of about $4,750 annually per pupil -- are often in high-wealth areas. It's also one parents find difficult to grasp.

"Parents get upset when I refer to Capistrano as a 'low-wealth' district, but that's what we are," said Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming, whose district gets about $4,250 annually per pupil. "It's the plight of the suburban districts."

A bill making its way through the Legislature, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea), would partially address the funding inequity by providing a one-time, $50-million total boost to districts that are disadvantaged by it.

If the bill passes, Orange County districts would receive nearly 10% of the money -- about $4.8 million. Because the money would be shifted from other educational programs, most school officials are confident that the legislation will succeed, despite the state's financial crisis.

The programs that will lose money have not been determined.

"California's public education system is supposed to be about providing equal opportunities for our children," Daucher said. "Raising these lower-funded school districts up toward the funding level of their higher-funded counterparts is therefore an issue of fundamental fairness."

Though the money would be much appreciated, district officials said, it wouldn't go far enough to prevent students from facing larger classes, fewer electives and pricier bus service. It would take about $41.8 million a year to bring Orange County districts up to the state average.

Capistrano Unified, which could receive about $450,000 if Daucher's bill passes, has eliminated a dozen district office positions and left vacant others emptied by retirements, resignations and promotions. Assistant principals have been returned to the classroom at the elementary campuses, and many teacher aides and assistant athletic coaches have seen their jobs cut.

Some electives, such as fourth-year French, have been eliminated, and children at all levels use more expensive bus service and walk farther to their neighborhood stops.

In less affluent areas, school districts receive federal money to help their poorest children. Some districts have credited that with freeing up other funds to save programs and teachers despite the state fiscal storm.

Schools with a large proportion of disadvantaged children need that spending flexibility, officials in other districts said.

"I don't begrudge them a single dollar," Fleming said. But after those districts get that extra money, the per-student funding should be equal, he said.

"That federal money should be the equalizer," he said. "Whatever is above that makes an even more insidious situation for a district like mine or [that of] Saddleback [Valley Unified] or Irvine."

The funding inequity is perhaps most severe in Irvine, officials from several districts agreed. Irvine Unified gets little sympathy from the state to solve its funding problems because for years the district's foundation has raised enough money to keep class sizes small in the lower grades and keep art, science and music programs going at every campus.

"The philosophy seems to be, 'You guys can raise your own money, so we don't have to worry about you,' " said district Trustee Sharon Wallin. "It's not fair to penalize us for our success."

In the last decade, Irvine has had to reduce or eliminate many librarian, health clerk, high school counselor and custodian positions, and the average class size has increased by six students. On the cutting board this year is class-size reduction for freshman English.

Irvine Unified could receive $380,000 if Daucher's bill is passed. The money probably wouldn't be used for new programs or services, Wallin said.

"It would help us to hang on to what we have," she said.

Michael S. Dillon, a lobbyist with the Sacramento-based Assn. of Low-Wealth Schools, agreed that even if the bill is signed, inequities remain.

"To be honest with you, this means a modest adjustment in terms of per-student funding," he said. "The more significant issue is for the Legislature to keep recognizing that this is an issue."

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