By Deb Murphy
“Frozen” may be a really popular animated film, but it’s not the word school districts want to use to describe their budgets. Unfortunately, small, rural districts in communities not generally described as affluent, are “frozen in time,” according to Big Pine Unified School District Superintendent Pamela Jones.
The Big Pine district will be holding a work session on Wednesday, March 25 to give the Board of Directors and the public an opportunity to look at its resources and develop priorities. “We’ll be talking about our vision for the future,” said Jones.
California’s Local Control Funding Formula was a boon to large urban campuses, providing supplemental funding for students with the greatest need: English-learners, minorities and those from low-income families. The supplemental funding comes on top of a base rate per student. That base rate, when the program is fully funded in 2020 grows from $6,845 for K-3 to $8, 289 for high schools.
Big Pine, as well as all county districts with the exception of Bishop, is still funded at the district’s property tax level and aren’t eligible for supplements, at least to date. As Jones states in the district’s newsletter, that works well for affluent districts with high property values. In addition, affluent districts often have community fund raising groups. Big Pine has neither. What it does have is 80 percent of its students from low-income families.
The housing market has stabilized and shown some improvements, but property taxes took a hit from foreclosures and short sales. In addition, homeowners had the opportunity to have their property re-assessed as the market bottomed out. Nobody is rushing to the assessor’s office to have their home ear-marked for higher property taxes as the market rebounds.
“We’re being funded at the same level (as before the LCFF came into play in 2013),” said Jones, “but our costs are increasing. One of the anomalies of the funding is there is no economy of scale.” For example: the target class size for K through grade three is 24. Large districts may struggle to get down to that number; smaller districts struggle to get that many students in each grade. But, the cost of educating the students in that classroom is nearly the same while the funding is based on the number of students in that classroom.
Big Pine schools have a healthy reserve, Jones said, above the required budget percentage. “But we have to,” she said. Jones used the example of a $500,000 roof replacement, the same whether it’s a Big Pine roof or a Los Angeles school roof. “That’s a much larger percentage of our total budget than it would be for a large district school,” she said.
The district will be looking at some income losses as well. Quality Investment Education Act funding of $120,000 ends next school year. Funding for the school’s career education program will take a 20 percent annual loss over the next five years.
Without its school, Big Pine will look like a bedroom community. “The school keeps this community vibrant,” said Jones.
The March 25 meeting, open to public input, starts at 6 p.m.