By Hannah Esqueda
Images by Crystal Rivera
MERCED, Calif. — Parents and education advocates fixed the Merced City School District (MCSD) firmly in their sights last month, presenting recommendations for more equitable school funding during a Merced community forum.
Dozens of local parents, speaking four different languages and representing a diverse swath of the Merced community, attended the forum to share their concerns over the district’s spending and priorities in next year’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
The LCAP is a statewide requirement for school districts to show how they plan to spend money provided through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). At the time of the parent’s forum, MCSD was still in the drafting phase of the LCAP and organizer say they are hopeful the testimony shared that night would be used by the district as it finalized its plan, as well as school board members when they vote on the LCAP at the end of June.
Like many districts, MCSD relies on LCFF dollars for a majority of its budget: state funds accounted for 75 percent of the district’s $134 million 2016-2017 budget. About $21 million of those LCFF funds are intended specifically for the district’s high-need populations like foster youth, low-income students and English-language learners.
Parents and advocates in attendance were eager to speak out on ways they believe the district can prioritizing equity as they finalize the 2017-18 school year plan.
“We just want to ensure that the funds are allocated specifically to target high-need student categories,” said Marilyn Mochel, project lead at Health Equity Project, one of the groups who sponsored the event, in collaboration with Building Healthy Communities Merced (BHC), Cultiva La Salud and the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE).
Parents said high need students are not getting the support they need to succeed.
“We need this so that all the kids can have the same rights so they can be someone one day,” said Floripes Dzid, a MCSD parent.
Chief among community concerns is what they perceive as a lack of transparency in last year’s LCAP. The 2016-17 plan only included documentation for equity-based funds rather than all LCFF dollars, and analysts from nonprofit justice group The Advancement Project found that $3.4 million were unaccounted for in the current school-year’s plan. Forum attendees asked the MCSD to do better to accurately track spending in next year’s LCAP.
Speaking in Hmong, MCSD parent Vue Yang said she’d like to see more support for parent engagement at each school as well as more investment towards overcoming language barriers.
These challenges can isolate families within the community as parents are unsure what specific programs are offered at their school and how to get involved. Ultimately students are the ones who suffer as they miss out on the chance to do sports or other extracurriculars because their parents don’t know about them, Vang said.
Yang directed her comments towards MCSD board member Miguel Lopez, asking him if he would commit to supporting more parent engagement in the 2017-2018 LCAP. Lopez was the only member from the five-person board to attend the event.
“Yes, I can definitely say I’m in favor of pushing for more parent engagement as I benefited from my own parents being involved in schools,” Lopez said.
Even without a language-barrier, communication between parents and the district is often flawed, said parent Bobbi Woods. A former MCSD student herself, Woods said she has faced constant hurdles in getting the district to properly care for her daughter, who has special needs.
“It’s been going on for years and it wasn’t until this year I saw results,” she said. “I had to be rude and disrespectful to get [administrators] to finally hear me and I find that’s not OK.”
“I don’t have a language barrier but I feel the school has a language barrier with parents,” she continued.
After hearing comments from parents, Lopez said he wanted to prioritize funding for translation equipment and advocate for more parent meetings at specific school sites on the city’s South side. However, he drew the line at creating any additional staff positions to liaise with parents.
Such positions were proposed by several community members, including Sabrina Abong, a foster youth advocate with California Youth Connection.
While Abong, 20, is no longer in the foster system, she has two siblings currently enrolled in MCSD and said she’d like to see a foster youth community liaison hired. Such positions exist at several other school districts throughout the state, including neighboring Mariposa County.
“I’m asking [MCSD] to put money towards foster youth specifically,” she said.
The district’s 2016-2017 LCAP allocated no funds directly on foster youth, less than one percent targeting low-income students and two percent exclusively for English Learners. The rest was directed towards all students district-wide regardless of need, Mochel, of the Health Equity Project, said.
“The need is not distributed evenly across our district and resources shouldn’t be either,” Mochel said. “We urge the district to implement the recommendations for the equitable distribution of funds.”
As the only board member present at the forum, Lopez said he couldn’t commit to all of the recommendations presented by parents.
“I can’t say 100 percent that all recommendations will be implemented,” he said. “It could be that some of the things you’re asking for here tonight might be in the works for next year’s LCAP already.”
“Remember, I’m only one of five [members]. There’s four other member who will be voting on this as well and I encourage you all to contact them and share your thoughts,” Lopez continued.
The MCSD school board has scheduled a public hearing on next year’s LCAP on Tuesday June 13 at Rivera Elementary School. The meeting is the last chance for public comments before the board formally votes whether or not to adopt the LCAP on June 27.