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File: Los Angeles Unified School Board member Mónica García listens to fellow board member George McKenna speak during a meeting on Tues., Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Los Angeles Unified School Board members voted Tuesday to approve several fixes to an important document at the heart of California’s new school funding system.

The document, known as the Local Control Accountability Plan, or “LCAP,” is the district’s plan for showing how three groups of students — low-income children, English learners and foster youth — benefit from the extra state funding they generate.

In LAUSD, those children generate an $1.1 billion per year in state funding. Six years ago, the state revised its funding formula to give district officials wide latitude to spend that money as they see fit — so long as they write an LCAP showing how this spending helps kids in those three vulnerable groups.

In July, a law firm called Public Advocates hit LAUSD with a formal complaint alleging the district’s latest LCAP document didn’t prove that this $1.1 billion was being spent to help low-income kids, English learners or foster youth. In fact, the complainants found evidence that this money was being used for more general expenses, such as across-the-board staff salary increases.

“I want to presume positive intentions,” said Maria Leon, a grandmother to LAUSD students, during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, “but from our perspective, it seems like you’re trying to hide the real intentions” behind the LCAP.

LAUSD acknowledged some errors with the LCAP — and a series of amendments the board considered on Tuesday was meant to clear up those errors.

HOLDING THEIR NOSE AND VOTING ‘YES’

The board voted 6-1 to adopt the updates, but some board members voted “yes” with obvious queasiness over issues raised in the complaint, and over the criticisms raised by parents.

“There’s a lot questions that feel like they haven’t been satisfactory answered,” said school board member Kelly Gonez.

But board member Mónica García noted that the vote on this LCAP is “last year’s news.” The LCAP is supposed to be finalized before the school year starts, at the end of the lengthy process involving internal deliberations and outreach to various parent groups.

A Los Angeles Unified School District bus idles on the curb on Aug. 9, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

“While I don’t feel great,” Gonez added, “I don’t know that voting ‘no’ solves any of the problems that are raised.”

In the end, only board member Scott Schmerelson voted ‘no.’ However, other board members did raise concerns; Nick Melvoin even promised to vote “no” on next year’s LCAP if it isn’t a “more user-friendly and visionary document.”

PLAYING A SHELL GAME? OR GETTING NIT-PICKED?

Still, it’s not clear the vote will end the debate over the Public Advocates complaint.

Even though LAUSD officials urged the board to adopt a few corrections, they aren’t conceding Public Advocates’ central arguments about the LCAP. The district has even countered that Public Advocates is trying to micromanage the district’s work on an already-complicated document.

And for its part, Public Advocates now says the district’s efforts to clear up these LCAP errors has actually revealed new problems — that potentially show the district is treating the whole exercise as a shell game.

For example, according to a memo from Public Advocates, the district’s first LCAP called for device carts that would ferry computers and other devices from classroom to classroom — for the benefit of all students. After the amendments approved Friday, the corrected LCAP now says these device carts “are suddenly intended for English learners (instead of all students) … but there is no change in expenditures.”

Public Advocates also found a similar change concerning how the district described $238 million in expenditures. In mid-September, the district said that money was spent on an “increase in salaries for teachers of high-need students.” The amended LCAP now says this money was spent to hire additional teachers — a change “without any explanation.”

“As an LAUSD parent myself, I’m aware of and sympathetic to the fiscal challenges facing the district,” said Nicole Gon Ochi, an attorney for Public Advocates, in testimony before the board. “I know LAUSD faces difficult decisions every day, but that is why we need more transparency, accountability and equity.”

Ochi urged the board to shoot down the LCAP amendments, saying a ‘no’ vote would be “a public demonstration that you, our elected officials, will not accept unintelligible documents that move millions of dollars without explanation or justification.”

THE DILEMMA

This isn’t the first time LAUSD has faced a complaint of this nature.

In 2017, LAUSD settled a similar complaint, also from Public Advocates, that accused the district of misspending state funding for vulnerable students. LAUSD disbursed an extra $151 million to 50 schools under that settlement — but the district also admitted no wrongdoing.

Michael Ramirez, a first-grade teacher at 20th Street Elementary School just south of downtown L.A., teaches a lesson in his bungalow classroom on Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Both that case, and the current complaint, highlight a peculiar dilemma LAUSD faces.

California’s school funding law, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), requires districts to spend dollars generated by low-income students, English learners and foster youth on “targeted” programs benefiting those groups (and to spell out how it helps those students in the LCAP).

In LAUSD, though, 85 percent of the district’s students fit into at least one of those groups. How does the district spend $1.1 billion in a manner that’s both “targeted” and also serves such a large number of kids?

“You try to do what [the complainants] ask, and they come back each time to say you’re doing it wrong,” said Paul Robak, a Lomita father of two and former chair of the Parent Advisory Council, during public comment Tuesday.

But Public Advocates says this dilemma hasn’t prevented other districts from navigating the challenges of the LCAP. They point to improvements in the LCAP process in neighboring Long Beach Unified, the state’s third-largest school district with comparable populations of low-income, English learner and foster students.

Ultimately, Ochi hopes the California Department of Education will weigh in on its complaint against LAUSD.

State officials may not be able to change LAUSD’s LCAP in time to affect services offered to students this school year. But the state may be able to offer guidance about how specific the district’s plans must be, and how closely districts must monitor schools’ spending of dollars meant for high-needs students.

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