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Suburban schools reflect the spectrum
Suburban districts provide a snapshot of statewide struggles and tailored solutions
by Alisha Kirby
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2021 report from the University of California, Davis’ California Education Lab found that suburban schools have been undergoing significant shifts in demographics in recent years. But while suburbia is more diverse than ever before, no two suburban districts are exactly alike.

Among the nearly 300 suburban local educational agencies included in the report, the percent of Latino students ranges from less than 1 percent to 99 percent of any given district’s student body. The proportion of students who are English learners varies from less than 1 percent to 62 percent, and students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals range from 1 percent to 95 percent.

Suburban districts also vary drastically in size. Ventura Unified School District has about 15,000 students compared to Elk Grove USD’s approximately 63,000, while Auburn Union School District’s enrollment is just over 1,500 students.

What these three districts do have in common is relatively rare: all three LEAs hover around the percentage threshold of unduplicated students that makes or breaks their ability to collect concentration grant funding under California’s Local Control Funding Formula to support high-need students.

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or districts grappling with abrupt, and in some cases extreme, shifts in enrollment as a result of the pandemic or natural disasters, it is becoming more difficult to keep programs operational — especially when additional funds hinge on retaining youth that tend to be some of the most transient.

Still, while some of these LEAs’ budget challenges are unique, they also largely reflect the difficulties districts throughout the state face.

“What I think people often lose sight of is that our schools are not just the place kids come to learn. They also come to get social services and to have meals,” said Ventura USD Board President and CSBA Regional Director, Sabrena Rodriguez. “In many cases, for our homeless students or our foster youth, we’re providing not only education and access to healthcare and mental health services, but also basic educational supplies, clothing and access to showers before school and after-school laundry care. There are so many things that our public schools today provide for our students that all come without special pots of money attached to them. We are being asked to do more every day for the students that we serve. No one wants to turn them away, no one wants to say we can’t, but the reality is that in order to be able to do those things — and to do them well — we need the funding.”

LCFF and concentration grants
The adoption of LCFF reformed California’s K-12 school finance system, replacing a patchwork of formulas and categorical programs with a focus on local control, equity and additional support for high-needs students — English learners, low-income and foster youth. Funds are distributed from the state to districts primarily through three grants: the base grant, the supplemental grant and the concentration grant.

The base grant varies by grade level and is tied to the average daily attendance (ADA) of students in four grade spans (K-3, 4-6, 7-8 and 9-12), with grades K-3 and 9-12 receiving additional funding to support smaller class sizes and career technical education. LEAs receive supplemental funding equal to 20 percent of the base grant for each high-need student, and concentration grants go to districts in which more than 55 percent of students are high need. For each student above the 55 percent threshold, districts receive funding equal to 50 percent of the base grant. Funding is determined by unduplicated counts, meaning a single student who is both low-income and an English learner can only be counted once.

This funding beyond the base grants can total tens of thousands of additional dollars that LEAs can put toward targeted school- or districtwide programs to improve outcomes among students in need of more support.

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What I think people often lose sight of is that our schools are not just the place kids come to learn. They also come to get social services and to have meals. … No one wants to turn them away, no one wants to say we can’t, but the reality is that in order to be able to do those things — and to do them well — we need the funding.”
– Sabrena Rodriguez, CSBA Regional Director and Board President, Ventura USD
Since 2018–19, when Ventura USD’s unduplicated count increased to 56.81 percent from 53.29 percent in 2017–18, the district has been able to add “dramatically improved mental health support and access to healthcare on our campuses,” Rodriguez said. “For the first time in our district’s history, we have licensed clinical social workers. And that has been huge in bridging the gap that exists between identifying a need and actually connecting that family or student to services that address the need.”

Academic supports, including hiring reading intervention specialists at schools with high numbers of unduplicated population students, are also making a difference, she said.

Enrollment shifts
According to Ventura’s EdData profile, 56.03 percent of students were unduplicated in 2020–21, a 0.57 percent dip from the year prior. During the pandemic, lower-income families moved out of the region, while some who could afford to do so enrolled their children in private schools that were open for in-person instruction during school closures. While those more affluent families may return, Rodriguez said she believes those who moved away due to cost are unlikely to come back.

But the district’s enrollment was changing prior to COVID. The Thomas Fire, which burned for over three months, destroyed hundreds of structures, displacing large numbers of families.

“The following year we lost 600 students. Those were students who unfortunately either had lost their home or, what was more common, students who had been living in a rental property where the owner of that property lost their home,” Rodriguez said. “We had a lot of families who were evicted because the person who owned that rental property had lost their primary residence and were moving into their investment properties while they rebuilt. So, there was a sort of trickledown effect. Those affluent families displaced some of our socioeconomically struggling families.”

Further upstate in Auburn Union SD, there are five small elementary school districts within a 10 mile radius, as well as a single school K-8 district less than a mile from the home of Julann Brown, Auburn Union trustee and a CSBA Delegate. Additionally, the high growth cities of Rocklin and Roseville are just a 20-minute drive down the hill.

“Because there’s not a lot of growth up here as far as housing, we compete for kids at a very intense level. Over the last 10 years, I think we’ve dropped 585 kids — 350 in the last five years. That really affects our enrollment numbers and how we look at programs,” Brown said, noting that at the same time, student groups have migrated within the district.

“It used to be that the large number of our unduplicated youth were highly concentrated in one school. We have seen them spread out a little bit in the last five years or more, where our numbers are going up in all our school sites with our overall average still staying the same,” she continued. “So, I think in a way, that’s made it more imperative for us as a district to really look at our programs to make sure we’re looking districtwide and being systematic about the programs we offer instead of just concentrating on one school.”

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In 2021–22 we did lose our concentration grant money resulting in a $500,000 hit to our budget. When we take a hit like that, we have to look at what’s going to affect the least number of students and furthest away from the classroom.”
– Julann Brown, CSBA Delegate and trustee, Auburn Union SD
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Currently, the district is doing what it can to maintain that momentum, but it’s become more challenging. For the last two years, all students in the U.S. have been able to access free school meals without submitting a free and reduced-price meals form. Children having easy access to healthy school meals is undoubtedly a good thing, but districts often rely on those forms to capture the number of low-income students enrolled. “We don’t have the mechanism or the methodology in place to really capture that data for our families,” Brown said. That, in addition to lower enrollment, is beginning to further strain the budget.

“We’re just hovering right above 56 percent, I believe. In 2021–22 we did lose our concentration grant money resulting in a $500,000 hit to our budget,” Brown said. “So, our general ed. home-to-school transportation is coming off our books because it’s a $500,000 savings to us. When we take a hit like that, we have to look at what’s going to affect the least number of students and furthest away from the classroom.”

Elk Grove USD’s unduplicated count also took a hit during the pandemic, as did overall enrollment. According to data provided by the district, overall enrollment actually grew by nearly 1,200 students in the two years before COVID. In the last two years, however, enrollment dropped by more than 1,400.

The pandemic also impacted the district’s attendance rate and ADA funding. “Our historical ADA percentage has been steady at roughly 95 percent but dipped to a low of 91 percent last year,” said Beth Albiani, Elk Grove USD trustee and CSBA Delegate.

When it comes to the district’s unduplicated count, which dropped from 56 percent in 2019–20 to 52.23 percent in 2020–21, according to state data, Albiani said like Auburn, COVID waivers had a significant impact.

“Although this is certainly a great thing for our students and communities, families were simply not inclined or motivated to submit free and reduced meal applications or alternative income forms,” she said. “We have a plan of action for the 2022–23 school year to communicate the impacts to school funding and to make this very easy for parents to complete, to track participation and to allow for follow up with families until they complete the applicable form.”

Unlike the situation in Auburn, however, the drop in Elk Grove was more gradual — though not without its own challenges. “The decline, which has happened relatively overtime, has allowed our district to ‘wean’ itself off the financial impacts of losing the concentration grant portion of the funding,” Albiani said. “The bigger impact is the loss of supplemental funding. Thankfully, we have been able to continue the services [for high-need students] by using other general fund dollars, reserves, federal funding and of course the COVID relief funding sources.

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Of the budgetary drop experienced with the loss of a relatively small number of kids, “I feel like there should be something that allows for a better stabilization, because it does feel like you drop off a cliff.”
– Julann Brown, CSBA Delegate and trustee, Auburn Union SD
COVID relief funding has allowed the district to expand services despite the loss of concentration and supplemental funding. “Absent a continuance of this one-time funding, the district will have tough budgetary and programmatic decisions in the out years,” Albiani said, noting that the Learning Recovery Block Grant in the 2022–23 state budget may allow Elk Grove to continue some programs through 2027–28.
Planning — without the time to plan
The need to keep apprised of enrollment on such a granular level is time consuming and serves to highlight students’ socioeconomic status — something Ventura USD’s Rodriguez calls an “unintended consequence” of the current funding model.

“We oscillate somewhere between 55.5 percent and 56.5 percent in our unduplicated student population,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’re about 120 students above the 55 percent threshold, so if we were to lose that group of students, that obviously impacts us from a budget perspective, but it also has huge ramifications in the way that we staff programs are designed to serve our unduplicated population.”

That need doesn’t just disappear when a district’s unduplicated count drops from 55 percent to 54 percent, she said. So, while the district has long collected that data, “now, there is a push and everyone at a school site knows it is very important to gather that information because it makes a huge difference for us as a district,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not just the money that matters, it’s the stability that matters because when you build programs and hire staff and you start to build capacity, undoing that work and dismantling programs and services affects the broader community in our schools. That instability is very difficult to manage.”

Auburn Union SD has attempted to manage in a way that smaller districts excel: getting creative with personnel. For example, the district outsources its director of technology to smaller surrounding districts, which makes up for the increase in his salary as his duties expanded, Brown said. “We’re really looking for creative, budget-neutral type adjustments that we can make that still provide programs and continue positions that service a greater number of students.”

The district also lost two bilingual paraprofessionals previously concentrated on a couple school sites, she explained, but two full-time, districtwide bilingual community liaison positions were then created. “Where we’ve made reductions, we’ve also tried to see how we can create new positions that maybe address the district need,” Brown said.

What district leaders need
Education funding is notoriously complex, and while there is no formula for distribution that will please everyone, all three board members shared where there is room for improvement. Both trustees from Elk Grove and Auburn Union said they would like to see help from the state when it comes to gathering data capturing socioeconomic status, especially when the incentive isn’t there for families to fill out free and reduced-price meal applications.

Brown also said she would like a way to steady the budgetary drop that a district like hers can experience with the loss of a relatively small number of kids. “I feel like there should be something, whether it’s formulaic or whatever, that allows for a better stabilization, because it does feel like you drop off a cliff,” she said. “Again, it’s small percentage points, but those percentage points represent actual people. And when over 50 percent of your kids are high need, you’re not going to drop a program that supports them.”

Ventura USD’s Rodriguez noted that while overall enrollment has decreased, the district’s percentage of special education students has increased. “That matters because funding for special education is based on your total enrollment, not based on the number of identified students [with disabilities] you have,” she said. “So, as our enrollment decreases, we have fewer dollars that are coming in from the state and the federal government to support those students.”

Both she and Elk Grove’s Albiani applauded state leaders for increasing LCFF base funding in the 2022–23 budget, as well as providing the first increase for transportation in decades. “The increase for transportation funding also provides relief to our general fund, which will certainly aid in this and allow us to redirect funds from the transportation encroachment to instructional programs and services,” Albiani said.

“I was really pleased to see CSBA step into that space and advocate,” Rodriguez agreed, noting that while 60 percent reimbursement is better, ideally, the state would fully fund home-to-school transportation. “For our size district, we actually do a lot of busing for our students. We’ve felt that it’s an important part of how we maintain our ADA,” she said. “Our attendance rates are very high, in part because we provide transportation. Getting kids to school is a big part of helping them overcome whatever obstacles they face.”


Alisha Kirby is a staff writer for California Schools.