The first in a series of stories on how Southern California schools are being affected by new state laws giving parents and others more say in classroom spending.
In a Sammy Lee Elementary's auditorium in Koreatown, 50 parents are combing through the Los Angeles Unified School District's proposed budget for next year, a 33-page draft of a document called the Local Control Accountability Plan.
Inside, bullet points a swath of complex policy outlining the district's goals, how its spending plans will meet those goals, and how success will be measured.
"I haven't seen this kind of language since I left law school," said Brent Anderson the parent of a 4th grader at Van Deene Elementary school.
This is L.A. Unified's attempt to meet new state requirements that school districts meaningfully engage parents in the budgeting process. Every district in the state is trying to do the same thing right now, with a looming July 1st deadline to submit spending plans to Sacramento.
But as the largest district in California - and the second-largest in the country - the task is particularly tricky at L.A. Unified.
"It's not an impossible task. However, we are never going to convince 600,000 people, said Alvaro Alvarenga, an administrator for parent engagement at L.A. Unified. "But we can get a sampling."
It was hectic
In the end, 100 parents were either appointed to serve or elected at school sites and then regionally. They are grouped in two committees: one representing parents of all of the district's 650,000 students and another for only English language learners.
“It was a little hectic for two or three weeks," Alvarenga said.
Once selected, parents were offered a crash course on Superintendent John Deasy's spending and accountability plans.
Under the new spending formula, L.A. Unified calculates it's receiving $837 million next year to target high needs students — an increase of $332 million over the current year.
It's supposed to use the money to help foster students, English learners and students from low-income families. At L.A. Unified, that's well over 80 percent of the school population.
The meeting at Sammy Lee Elementary on May 1st was one of the last of a series of gatherings for the parent groups. They were tasked with going over the district's spending plan - and making their own recommendations.
But even the most sophisticated parents struggled to get a clear picture of where money was going.
"I can’t comment meaningfully on this category without understanding what $59.3 million means compared to last year," Rachel Green told her group as they dug into a section of the outlining services for high need students.
The group's facilitator couldn't help, leaving Green to scramble through her binder of materials, including a several-page budget analysis she had prepared on her own before the meeting,
"We are supposed to be consulted, and consultation means that we are providing meaningful information," Green said. "That’s really difficult to do when we are provided information that is completely non-contextual.”
As participants sped through Deasy's plan, L.A. Unified facilitators summarized parents' thoughts - usually questions - into recommendations.
District staff will pare those down to the most popular ideas, which Deasy will respond to in writing next week, when the school board takes up Deasy's proposed budget in public comment.
Neither Deasy or the board - which approves the budget - are under any legal obligation to follow parents' recommendations.
Still, parents took their task seriously.
"Can someone explain this to me?" asked Evelyn Aleman, a parent at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth. "These are the goals here - and they are all student oriented - what does custodial have to do with this?”
The facilitators couldn't tell her why some of the targeted funds were slated for maintenance.
Aleman's recommendation: maintenance and custodial costs should be covered by the much larger general funding stream. The district's entire budget is over $6 billion.
Connie Boukids had another question: "What criteria is being used to define the campuses of highest need?”
Her eighth grader attends the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies near Culver City. At about 50 percent low-income, the school's population qualifies as low-income for federal poverty programs, but is still more affluent than over 80 percent of schools in L.A. Unified.
The facilitator pressed her to rephrase her question into a statement. Boukids replied that she's worried the money isn't being divided up equally, that some high needs students are getting a lot more money than others, depending on which school they attend.
Under Deasy's plan, 37 schools are getting more counselors, instructional specialists and training for teachers and principals. The investment settles a lawsuit the district has fought for nearly five years.
“That’s thousands of students that are being used to qualify for the money, but aren’t getting the benefit of it," said Boukids.
Boukids thinks the extra state money should "follow the child" to the school site, which would redistribute cash from central programs to bolster budgets of schools like hers.
Green isn't happy with spending on centrally-run English language learner services either.
Deasy's proposal calls for that category to stay the same as last year. Why, then is so much more money being spent on foster youth, she wonders.
“Let me get this right, EL is only getting three times the money for 10 times the students?" Green asked.
District officials told KPCC principals have some leeway with spending and could chose to invest more of their money on English learner services.
Even after several meetings with district staff, most parents on the English learners committee weren't aware Deasy isn't planning on growing their programs next year. Less than half of the committee even turned up to its meeting to issue recommendations April 29. The district has scheduled a make-up session for Thursday.
Diana Guillen sits on both parent committees and said district officials told her at one committee session there would be more money for her Spanish-speaking kids.
She's left wondering whether the parent engagement effort is just a dog and pony show.
"There’s something wrong with the system," Guillen said in Spanish. "The parents know but they don’t listen to us. We’ve gone to the board, to Sacramento and nothing has changed."