LINCOLN MIDDLE SCHOOL— Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is better equipped than most to adapt to the state’s new funding formula, education officials said.

About 60 members of the community, the district and the Board of Education listened to a presentation Tuesday night by School Services of California, an agency that advises the district in fiscal matters. Sheila Vickers, the School Services speaker, laid down the rules of the road for the new Local Control Funding Formula and its counterpart, the Local Control Accountability Plan.

The new funding formula, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on this year, creates a uniform system for distributing money to school districts. It also gives the districts more flexibility as to how they choose to use the funds. Previously, the money was packaged for individual programs decided upon by the state.

Flexibility means that the community will help build the budget and decide on accountability goals that must be met for the district to continue to receive state money.

Tuesday night’s meeting was meant to explain the formula to anyone who wants to help build the budget and the accountability plan.

One problem, as Vickers noted at the meeting, is that the State Board of Education hasn’t set spending regulations (they will in January) or provided a template for the accountability plan (which comes in March).

A draft of the guidelines has been released and, Vickers said, the district and the community should start the process, making adjustments when the final guidelines are released.

All districts are receiving more money for the 2014-15 budget than they did the year prior.

The district gets an extra 20 percent more than the base per-student rate for each student eligible for free and reduced-price meals or labeled an English-language learner. About 27 percent of SMMUSD students are low-income and 9 percent are English learners. These are lower percentages than many other districts so the bump in state funding will not be as substantial.

After the meeting, many community members said they were still digesting the information. There were no formal requests to speak, although several school board members asked Vickers questions.

Board of Education President Laurie Lieberman said that the flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean the board will enact sweeping changes.

“Though districts aren’t required to spend in categorical dollars, the way they once were, a lot of the missions for the categorical dollars still exist,” she said. “You still have students who are not achieving, or who are English learners. We certainly will spend money on trying to help those same students.”

The same goes for accountability, she said, which they always strive to keep at top levels.

High levels of civic involvement in both Santa Monica and Malibu will give the board a wealth of input when shaping the budget.

“We do have a number of existing groups who have traditionally reviewed and given input into the way categorical monies were to be expended,” she said. “Some of our district advisory committees (DACs), like the Special Ed DAC, or the Intercultural Equity and Excellence DAC, the Financial Oversight Committee, we have people in groups who we know we can reach out to to become part of this larger group once we figure out what’s the format for that. We don’t lack for community input.”

She also pointed out that SMMUSD is blessed by a strong local tax base, which means the district is less impacted by changes to state funding.

Boardmember Nimish Patel said that these tax dollars have also given the board previous lessons in shaping its own budget.

“For the most part we’ve been able to do a lot of things outside of the state requirement, just because we have our own local funding from local taxes, but now we’re really able to shore up the needed resources to fully implement some of the existing programs,” he said. “So it’s not to say that we need to change everything that we have. I think we might be able to now focus on the areas that we think are effective.”

The type of hands-on policy-making allowed by the formula is one of the reasons that Patel wanted to join the board. The old system, he said, was too restrictive.

“It had nothing to do with what the demographics of the kids or what their needs were,” he said. “I think this is a good way to attack the problem we’ve been facing in the past. I think every school board member has talked about closing the achievement gap. It’s difficult when your hands are tied because you’re administering programs that the state is mandating. Here, we get to get our hands around the issues.”

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