On a recent November evening, Del Norte County residents streamed into the Crescent City Cultural Center, a rustic-themed building with soaring wood-beamed ceilings that’s one of the Northern California city’s best gathering places.
A large yellow school bus also pulled up, with “School Success Express” and images of students printed on its side. It carried residents from Smith River, an agricultural community 14 miles north. Many riding it had no transportation there otherwise.
A free buffet dinner, catered by Perlita’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant, and free childcare made it much easier for parents to attend the Wednesday evening event, sponsored by the California Endowment. After dinner the serious business began of brainstorming ways to spend an historic new source of state money for schools in low-income communities, such as Del Norte County.
This wasn’t an idle exercise – feedback from parents on how to spend this new infusion is required by the law.
It’s called the “Fair School Funding Law”, and California Gov. Jerry Brown championed it through the legislative process. In a public ceremony, he signed it into law on July 1. It restores local schools districts’ control over funds that were previously earmarked for scores of state-mandated programs, and – critically – gives extra funds to schools with a high number of low-income students, English learners and foster youth.
For the Del Norte County Unified School District, that means the annual budget for educating 4,100 students will go from $21 million in the current school year to $31 million by 2020, or $1.5 million annually for the next seven years, said Don Olson, district superintendent.
It won’t end the big funding gaps between state school districts, with districts in wealthier areas getting more than $21,000 per student, while those in areas with lower property tax revenues get about $6,000 per student. (1) But it narrows the gap.
After several speeches by local leaders, the crowd of about 250 broke into groups to discuss the most urgent needs for improving schools. Themes such as smaller class sizes were common here and in the other 11 other such community gatherings sponsored by the California Endowment. And some spoke of better college preparation.
But the value of the new local control of spending was clear inside that Crescent City meeting hall, when table after table also mentioned the importance of vocational training.
Jobs are scarce in the area, and for some learning a trade is a viable path toward a good-paying job in the rural coastal county, population 28,000.
One man said he got his pilot’s license years ago from the local high school. A woman talked about teaching students gardening and cooking skills, while others discussed agricultural field trips and teaching farming skills, such as learning to operate large farming equipment.
“Life skills” also came up, like teaching kids communication skills to do well in an interview, etiquette classes, setting goals and even simply counting change.
“Not all kids college-bound,” commented one man.
The new plans for the funds take effect July 1, 2014. I’ll report then on what the Del Norte school district, with parent input, decides.
(1) California school district spending and test scores, California Watch, June2011.