State budget offers glimmer of good news to Alameda

State budget offers glimmer of good news to Alameda

Michele Ellson

California’s new $96.3 billion state budget may offer Alameda some glimmers of good news, with increased funding for schools, social services and community colleges for the first time in years.

Perhaps the biggest story involves the budget’s impact on public schools, which will see major changes in the way state school funding is being allocated – and if all goes according to plan, the eventual restoration and return of billions of dollars in payments that were cut or deferred over the past five years.

The new budget offers local school and community college districts $4.3 billion of the $10.5 billion the state owed but withheld over the past several years, though the amount is $667 million less than what had been proposed. It also includes $1.25 billion to fund implementation of the Common Core, a set of national standards outlining what students are expected to know at each grade level, and $250 million in grant funding for career pathway programs which link high schools, community colleges and businesses.

But the biggest change K-12 schools will face comes in the way their services are funded. The new funding scheme, which comes with an additional $2.1 billion this year and would be phased in over eight years, offers a base per-student grant with additional money for school districts where 20 percent of their students are low-income, in foster care or English learners and a third level of funding for districts where 55 percent or more of their students fall into at least one of those categories. It eliminates all but about a dozen of the “categorical” programs where about a quarter of the district’s funding once flowed.

A spreadsheet published by EdSource shows that Alameda will do slightly better under the plan approved by the Legislature than the one proffered by Gov. Jerry Brown, whose proposal offered lower base grants and bigger payments for districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged youth; 43 percent of the district’s students are English language learners, low-income or in foster care, the spreadsheet shows.

The district’s proposed budget for next year shows about $7 million more in revenue than the current year’s budget as approved last June.

Along with the money comes a slew of new public involvement and reporting measures that will include a three-year spending plan that demonstrates how schools expenditures align with local and state goals and the creation of parent committees to provide input on it. Districts that fail to meet their goals could be subject to state intervention.

“This provided a little bit more flexibility,” the district’s chief business officer, Robert Shemwell, said. “But I think we’re going to have to balance that with a little bit more community reporting.”

To Shemwell, the “bigger news” is the pending payment of money the state owed but withheld; for Alameda Unified, the state deferred 26 percent of the money they promised to pay, an amount Shemwell said will drop by seven to eight percentage points. But it’s not yet clear when those payments will come, and that could put the district – which has budgeted an additional $5.3 million for salaries and benefits this year and is facing the specter of more than $7 million in repayments after losing a lawsuit over the Measure H parcel tax – in a cash flow crunch, he said.

Alameda’s charter school leaders said they were cheered by the budget and the new money it brings – to a point. Paul Bentz, who heads Community Learning Center Schools, Inc. said the budget plan is good news in the long run, but the schools the company operates – Nea Community Learning Center and Alameda Community Learning Center – will only get 2 percent more state funding for next year.

“I am excited about the additional funding although I firmly believe that public schools in California are still under-funded,” said Matt Huxley, executive director of the Academy of Alameda. “I'll be working closely with my board on an annual basis to determine how the additional funds should be spent to impact all of our students learning at high levels.”

Community colleges and social service providers will see the restoration of some funding that disappeared when California’s finances went off a cliff, they said, though they won’t get the same money they had before the Great Recession.

Community colleges will get a 1.57 percent cost of living increase and enough state funding to boost enrollment by 1.63 percent, which for the Peralta Community College District translates into a $1.4 million cost of living increase and another $1.5 million to cover the cost of enrolling the equivalent of another 300 full-time students, said Ron Gerhard, Peralta’s vice chancellor of finance.

Gerhard said that when he started at Peralta, a four-college district that includes the College of Alameda, in July 2010, the state provided enough money for Peralta to educate the equivalent of 19,500 full-time students but that the following year, funding cuts trimmed that number to 17,800. (State funding is measured in terms of full-time students, though many community college students attend part time, so the number of students whose schooling will be funded will likely be larger.)

Even so, he said he’s excited to see funding grow after years of cuts. Community colleges will also see restoration of $500,000 for “categorical” programs serving disabled students and those receiving welfare checks, and Peralta is in line for $900,000 in Proposition 39 funds for energy efficiency projects in addition to deferred maintenance money.

Like K-12 schools, community colleges will also receive funding payments the state deferred over the last several years; Gerhard said the state held on to $18 million of $60 million to $65 million in funding Peralta would ordinarily have received.

“Hopefully it’s one of many budgets to come that helps restore some of the large cuts we’ve made in the last three or four years,” Gerhard said.

Local social service providers said they’re still assessing the impacts of the new budget, which includes $206 million in new spending for mental health services, cost of living increases for welfare recipients, subsidies for more than 11,000 new part-time and full-time preschool slots and money to backfill $15.8 million in federal sequestration cuts to child care. The budget also restores dental care for adult Medi-Cal recipients.

Irene Kudarauskas, executive director of Alameda Family Services, said the federal sequester imposed a 5.27 percent cut on her agency’s Head Start/Early Head Start program, cutting six of the 76 spaces it had to serve children from birth to age 5. As it was, she said, the program has a waiting list of 100 families.

One thing the budget is missing is more money for housing, said Doug Biggs, executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative, which serves 300 formerly homeless families at Alameda Point. State lawmakers and the courts eliminated redevelopment programs that leveraged future property taxes for development efforts; the state’s redevelopment law required 20 percent of the money to be set aside for affordable housing.

“The budget has restored only part of the cuts that have been made over the last few years and until redevelopment is restored or another source of housing funds established, the increase in funds is only treating the symptoms and not the causes of poverty and homelessness,” Biggs said.

While local schools will get some new funding and big changes in the way it’s delivered under the new state budget, local governments will see little impact, Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam said.

Provisions in the budget that would make compliance with the state’s public records act optional are being derided by a slew of media outlets as eviscerating the law and the public’s right to access to records. But Warmerdam said the city will continue to follow a set of public record and meeting rules put in place in 2011.

“Because we have the Sunshine Ordinance, none of this would apply to Alameda,” she said.