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City Year Corps Member Tiffany Chen, left, practices tutoring strategies with fifth grader Martha Cruz, at Cesar Chavez School in San Jose, Calif., on Wed., Sept. 18, 2013. Chen is helping Cruz with her literacy skills, specifically comprehension. City Year Corps members help tutor second through fifth grade students. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Staff writers

For the first time in years, school districts across the state are getting an influx of new money.

And for the first time, local districts are mostly free to figure out how to spend the money in ways that will benefit students.

For some districts, that might mean reducing class sizes and hiring new teachers or literacy coaches; for others it could mean expanded technology or providing more time for parent outreach and teacher collaboration.

"It's a tectonic shift from where we've been," said Eric Heins, vice president of the California Teachers Association and an educator in the Pittsburg school district. "Now, the responsibility lies with the district and the community to decide how best to deal with the student."

While the extra money and absence of most spending requirements from the state is liberating, it can also be a bit terrifying.

The new school funding law that took effect July 1 was billed as a way to simplify California's complicated system of school funding, but some districts are finding it more complex and opting to hold off on making spending decisions until they get more clarity on the state's priorities and exactly how much they will receive.

The law eliminates most "categorical" funds, which were restricted to very specific uses such as textbooks, and gives control over spending to local school boards.

Districts with large populations of students who are poor, still learning English or in the foster care system will benefit from additional grants expected to grow incrementally through 2021. And accountability for student achievement will rest more directly on the shoulders of school district officials, who are expected to work with their communities to devise effective spending plans that give all students a level academic playing field.

That is welcome news for Tamera Jones, whose daughter attends Kennedy High School in Richmond. She said additional teacher training in diversity could be beneficial, especially in low-income communities such as hers.

"If you could better understand some of the children's family lives or issues that they're going through -- I think if they had some training in some of those things -- they would be better equipped to teach these children," she said.

But it isn't only poor districts that stand to benefit. The $42 billion state education budget includes $2.1 billion in new money for K-12 schools this year. Within eight years, all school districts should receive an average base grant of $7,357 per student, about $2,000 more than they received last year, and some will get much more. The goal is for all districts to receive at least as much as they did in 2007-08, before the economic collapse.

The state expects districts to start spending the new money now, even thought they won't know the exact amount they will receive until July -- after the school year is over.

Adding to the challenge, the California Board of Education won't adopt its regulations for expenditures of the new money ¿until January, templates for district accountability plans won't be ready until March and the criteria for evaluating districts are more than two years away.

"Right now, it's like we're building the plane while flying it," said Tim Forrester, the Antioch school district's associate superintendent of business services. The district expects to receive about $6 million this year, an increase of about $900,000 over last year, but it is not spending the money until it can examine the state's priorities and get input from the schools and the community about what is needed.

Even without all the guidelines in place, districts such as Ravenswood in San Mateo County and West Contra Costa are gingerly moving forward with their plans.

The state is providing up to three pots of money to districts: base grants that most districts believe can be spent on any educational need -- new teachers, programs, computers, technology -- and supplemental and concentration grants to improve the education of disadvantaged students.

Ravenswood expects to get $1.5 million more this year, a jump of 7 percent. It is spending money on support for classroom teachers, new instructional materials and technology, and expanding science, technology, engineering and math programs and professional development.

The West Contra Costa district anticipates a net increase of $6.4 million this year, according to a July budget report. It plans to spend some of the money on reducing K-3 class sizes, increasing school resource officers and full-service community schools with health and after-school services.

"I think it will make a big difference," said Sarah Creeley, a third-grade teacher at Hanna Ranch Elementary in Hercules who has 26 students in her class. "Children that are at risk are the ones who are hurt the most with large class sizes and who are helped the most with class-size reduction."

Like Antioch, the Mt. Diablo school district is taking a wait-and-see approach. The district expects to get at least $2.5 million more this school year but hasn't recommended any new expenditures, preferring instead to "bank" the money until it learns the exact amount it will receive. The East Side Union High and Alum Rock school districts in the South Bay are also holding off on developing their accountability plans until the spring, so they can follow the state's regulations.

"I'm hoping the Local Control Funding Formula will allow us to be nimble when we need it," said Stephen Fiss, Alum Rock superintendent. "I'm hoping it's not so onerous, with so many rules and restrictions and regulations, that we're not really able to use it to benefit kids. We've seen that before, where the rules become restrictive rather than helpful."

But Jeff Bell of School Services of California, which advises districts on their budgets, said districts should get moving. He said the legislation spells out the state's priorities for the funding, including providing appropriate teachers, instructional materials and courses.

"You can spend it on everything in accordance with the statutes," he said. "You don't need the regulations for that. You don't have to get hung up on that, because the state law has been passed."

Districts that are wondering what works could look to Marilyn Avenue Elementary School in Livermore, said Kelly Bowers, superintendent of the Livermore Valley Joint school district. The school has used Quality Education Investment Act grant funding to reduce class sizes, provide time for teacher collaboration and professional development, and hire literacy coaches. As a result, the school, which has a 70 percent population of English language learners, saw its Academic Performance Index -- a score of 200 to 1,000 based on standardized tests -- soar from 646 in 2000 to 833 in 2012. The grant will expire in 2015, but with the district receiving about $6,447 per student this year, and as much as $9,583 per student by 2020-21, those programs could stay.

"This is a model for all schools ... that could be replicated in others regionally and throughout the state," Bowers said. "This school is like an incubator and a hub where everyone is benefiting."

Staff writers Paul Burgarino and Ashly McGlone contributed to this report.

MORE INFORMATION
Comments on Local Control Funding Formula implementation can be sent to lcff@wested.org. To see an implementation timeline and list of state funding priorities, along with video clips of local school officials, visit www.contracostatimes.com.
Additional details are available by visiting www.cde.ca.gov. Click on "Local Control Funding Formula."