It’s a story well told but not welcomed: California ranks among the bottom in funding per student. And the Saugus Union School District ranks among the lowest within that low.
Receiving the second smallest amount of money per student per school year in the county, Saugus got just $7,720 per student for the 2016-17 school year, the most recent year available, according to the California Department of Education. Superintendent Colleen Hawkins said only Hermosa Beach City School District received less.
By comparison, the Castaic district got $97 more and Newhall got $258 more. Sulphur Springs got $8,203 per student per year, and Acton-Agua Dulce got $8,885.
The William S. Hart Union High School District got $8,568, but Saugus District spokesman Lee Morrell said it isn’t fair to compare elementary with high school districts.
Nationally, California ranks 45th in percentage of taxable income spent on education, 41st in per-pupil funding, 45th in pupil-teacher ratios and 48th in pupil-staff ratios, according to the California School Boards Association, which cited state and national sources.
What’s a school district to do? Ever since Proposition 13 cut property taxes, districts have struggled. They can’t simply petition the state for more money. First, there’s Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimum level of the state budget must be spent on K-14 education.
The problem, said Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita), is that once that minimum level is met, Sacramento lawmakers tend to think of education as being fully funded.
“It has operated as a ceiling instead of a floor, and its intent was to be a floor,” Smith said.
Another problem, according to Smith: Govs. Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom have not been willing to put budget surpluses toward education.
“So, it’s a matter of how do we figure, out of the state’s existing General Fund, a means of finding some savings that could be shifted to the education space,” Smith said.
The problem is the Legislature is often hamstrung from so many ballot propositions over time that require various General Fund monies go to various things.
One legislative attempt to solve the problem was to create a local control funding formula, but because the Great Recession led to some deep cuts in education, the LCFF has only restored funding to pre-2007 levels, Hawkins said. So, Saugus is where it is.
Morrell told a story, possibly apocryphal, that explains why Saugus is so poorly funded: Originally, the district was designated as rural and agricultural, which means less funding than urban districts.
Smith has heard that story, too.
“Some of the funding formulas are pretty archaic, and they don’t meet current circumstances at all, when it comes to what it costs to educate a student given the area,” Smith said.
Nor do the formulas take into account special needs, whether learning, emotional or physical, Smith added.
“It is time to move on to something that makes more sense,” she said.
Saugus took the approach of offering early retirements to its teachers and staff. Hawkins said that when she took over in July, the district was overstaffed by 30 positions. Now, 82 people have taken advantage, including 37 teachers, she said.
The good news was that the district avoided layoffs and has been able to increase its class sizes from 26 to 28 students (the district says on its website there isn’t enough funding for smaller class sizes, and Hawkins said 300 teachers and staff are within five years of retirement age). The bad news is some of the most experienced people left, to be replaced by cheaper, less experienced teachers.
Adding to this is what Hawkins says is a shortage of teachers that can be traced to the Great Recession. Declining enrollment is also a factor. The district expects 184 fewer students next year, Hawkins wrote on the district website.
None of the other area districts resorted to early retirements, although Smith, a former Newhall district trustee, recalled a time when Newhall did.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” Smith acknowledged. “With pension costs creeping up and other impending factors, you’re looking at Saugus having to do some early retirement buyouts. Newhall had to do early retirement buyouts in the past. It doesn’t come without a set of tradeoffs.”
Smith said she’s trying to do something about it, signing on to Assembly Bill 39, which requires the state in 2020-21 to increase its basic funding to $13,462 for K-3 students, $12,377 for grades 4-6, $12,745 for grades 7-8 and $15,152 for grades 9-12. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national average was $11,392 in 2017-18.
California spends about $10,291 on average, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
AB 39 currently sits in the Education Committee, of which Smith is a member. A hearing was postponed on March 20, legislative records show.
The California School Boards Association is demanding something be done. It is behind Full & Fair Funding, a petition that calls for providing “the access, resources and supports needed to provide a high-quality education for all public school students.”
It does not specify how much per student that is, but Smith and Hawkins support it. Hawkins, in fact, takes it one step further.
“I have a preference that my students have all the money that we need to provide really robust programs with really qualified teachers, and that things like art and music and counselors and those sorts of things aren’t considered extras but are considered core,” she said. “Whether it’s Full & Fair Funding or AB 39, whichever one gets me to the point where that is an easier option than what I’m faced with now, which is very limited funds and deficit spending.”