CLASS IN SESSION: Students at Roosevelt Elementary School learn about the Cool Tools program. (File photo)
CLASS IN SESSION: Students at Roosevelt Elementary School learn about the Cool Tools program. (File photo)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — For the first time in five years, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will not see cuts in funding from the state.

How much money it will get, what those funds will cover and even the mechanism by which the cash is delivered, however, are still open questions.

That was the message that Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer, delivered to the Board of Education last week, and the state has not offered much in the way of clarity since.

Districts are facing a fork in the road when it comes to their budgeting, one that won’t resolve itself until summer when the legislature votes on the state budget.

In his proposed budget released earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown recommended an overhaul of the way the state delivers money to school districts by empowering local elected boards to move money around more freely than in the past.

It’s a big shift from revenue limits and categorical funding, the now-traditional method of giving money to schools that puts strict limitations on what the cash could be used for.

While some of those kinds of restrictions still exist, the proposal would give local governing boards the flexibility to put money where schools and districts most need it.

Instead of categorical funds, money would come in the form of a base grant and supplemental grants. The extra cash would be targeted at schools with higher numbers of students learning English or who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The switch, along with some new classroom size requirements, would take place over the course of seven years.

It’s what money-minded district employees across the state have been requesting for years, Maez said.

“From a fiscal point of view, it’s definitely a good thing,” Maez said Tuesday. “It doesn’t make it any easier … . It really does push decision to the local level. Now it’s our responsibility rather than someone in Sacramento on how best to spend the money.”

Many in the education community are breathing a big sigh of relief that there is money to spend.

Proposition 30, a statewide tax measure that received strong support in Santa Monica and Malibu, is expected to buoy education finances by $6 billion over the next seven years, shielding higher education and K-12 from potentially devastating cuts.

Furthermore, Brown’s budget includes a $2.7 billion increase in money guaranteed by another voter approved measure, Proposition 98, which sets mandated spending levels on education. Brown also dedicated money from Proposition 39 — passed on Nov. 6, which closed a loophole in corporate taxation — to bolster Proposition 98 spending levels in 2013-14.

All that new money aside, there’s no guarantee that Santa Monica and Malibu schools will see a substantial increase in the amount of money they get from the state, whether the governor gets his way with locally-controlled funding or not.


Promises still broken


The difference between what the state should give schools and what it will give them — called the “revenue limit deficit” — is still over 20 percent, it’s just the first time in half a decade that it hasn’t gotten worse.

Base funding under the old system would equate to $5,331 per student in 2013-14 compared to $5,289 last year, according to Maez’s figures.

While SMMUSD does have a number of students enrolled as English language learners and who enrolled in the free or reduced price lunch program — 9.3 percent and 25.5 percent respectively during the 2010-11 school year — that won’t be enough to meet the over-50 percent threshold for the second level of supplemental funding.

As Maez put it Tuesday, unlike in the past where all school districts’ funding rose or fell together, the proposed system would cause some districts to receive more money from the state than others.

It would be important to know exactly where SMMUSD fell in that spectrum, said school board member Ben Allen.

“This is a dramatic change, and one that will have clear winners and losers,” Allen said.

District officials need more time to work out additional details for a budget study session originally intended for a meeting in late January. It will likely be pushed to the beginning of February, said Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

“It’s hard for us to formulate proposals when we have such a basic understanding of what this might look like,” Lyon said.

The budget situation is in such a state of flux that Maez has proposed preparing at least two budgets, one under the assumption that current methods of funding stay in place, and another under the governor’s proposed shift to local control.

“Every [chief budget officer] out there will tell their boards this is the beginning, not the end, of the process,” Maez said. “There is a lot that needs to happen between now and May. What we are certain of is that the May revision will have major differences of one kind or another.”

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