Long Beach Unified faces questions over spending on high-needs kids

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A group of parents and community organizations have formally accused the Long Beach Unified School District of misusing state funding intended to fund targeted programs for three high-needs groups of children: low-income students, English learners and foster kids.

Instead of targeted programs, officials in the state's third-largest school system instead used roughly $40 million of that state money to cover more general expenses — namely, staff salaries and benefits, as well as the costs of instructional materials and technology upgrades — according to an official complaint the group filed Tuesday.

The Long Beach Unified complaint echoes a similar dispute in neighboring Los Angeles Unified — a dispute that ultimately forced L.A. school officials to realign how they spent, or at least how accounted for spending, hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds.

Both complaints highlight a challenge both L.A. Unified and Long Beach Unified face under the California's four-year-old school funding law, which has spread an extra $12.8 billion in funding to districts statewide on the condition they spend it on targeted programs for low-income, English learner or foster students.

Sizeable majorities of the student populations in both L.A. (84 percent) and Long Beach (70 percent) fit into at least one of those high-need categories. And so the question is: How can these districts create programs that are at once specific to these high-need students needs while simultaneously serving such large swaths of their student populations?

The groups behind the complaint argue that it's possible. Angelica Jongco, the attorney representing the group that filed the Long Beach complaint, noted state officials have ruled districts can spend the extra per-pupil funding low-income, English learner and foster students generate — known as "supplemental and concentration" funding — on critical expenses like teacher salaries.

To do so, district officials “have to provide the justification as to how spending in a district-wide way is still something that is going to provide some primary benefit to [high-need] students," explained Jongco, a senior staff attorney for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates — the firm that also represented groups who sued L.A. Unified over similar concerns.

A school district, Jongco said, needed to provide not only a narrative rationale for how spending supplemental and concentration dollars on district-wide items would benefit low-income kids, English learners and foster children; the district would need to specify a way to measure whether these high-needs students are benefitting. "And yes," Jongco added, "not doing that is a violation of the law.”

But according to the complaint, Long Beach Unified officials provided no such rationale or metric.

Even after officials in the L.A. County Office of Education pressed them to offer a rationale for how their spending benefits these three high-need student groups, the complaint said, Long Beach Unified officials simply "added a single clause … at the end of an entire paragraph that describes how funds will be used to increase the quality of classroom instruction for all students."

The Long Beach parents and community groups didn't only raise concerns with the district; they filed a separate formal complaint with the L.A. County Office of Education, saying officials there stumbled in their role as overseers of how Long Beach Unified spends state funds intended for high-needs students. In an email, a spokesman for the county, Kostas Kolaitzidis, said the complaint is under review.

In a statement, Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou said the district's spending plan "meets or exceeds state requirements and the spirit of the law."

The district, he wrote, "is one of the most progressive school systems in terms of addressing specific student groups in the plan. In addition, 70 percent of our students meet one of the specified populations to be addressed in the plan, so the whole-system work we’re doing benefits these students as well …"

"We’ll carefully consider the viewpoints of the complainants in this case," Eftychiou concluded, "and then respond through the formal process."

The formal process, known as the Uniform Complaint Process, requires both Long Beach Unified and the county Office of Education to reply to the complaints within 60 days. Depending on the response, Jongco said the complainants may choose to escalate the matter to the California Department of Education.