Educating Jackie

Mill Valley School District Amount spent per student* — $11,226

Where the money goes:

• Teacher salaries:  $5,444

• Administrative and support salaries:  $1,629

• Employee benefits:  $2,011

• Books and supplies:  $452

• Services:  $1,548

• Other:  $143

* Based on ADA (Average Daily Attendance), 2007-08

Jackie Flax is, as you can see, adorable. She’s smart, polite (and a bit shy) around her elders, wears braces, carries a huge backpack and, like so many other students at Mill Valley Middle School, has parents who support public education with their time and money.

Jackie is fortunate. She attends one of the best schools—public or private—in a county that two years ago Forbes magazine said provided the nation’s “best bang for the buck” in public education, graduating 96.8 percent of its high school seniors (in 2004) and having more than 60 percent take SAT tests.

Today, Marin’s 75 public schools still rank among the nation’s best; nearly two-thirds exceed national academic achievement levels. But the quality of that education—meaning, more literally, how well Marin County prepares Jackie Flax and her 29,000 public school classmates for adulthood—has never been more in doubt thanks to the sorry state of California’s financial affairs. Anyone even casually aware of the Kafkaesque budget kerfuffle in Sacramento knows that public schools face grim times. The state has already cut $12 billion in education funding and billions more are on the block.

With all public schools being at least partially dependent on state money, last school year’s fat-trimming has morphed into this year’s bone-whacking. Even here in affluent Marin County, it’s a mess. Teachers sacked. Classes cut. No summer school. Pricier bus passes. More proposed parcel taxes.

Marin can expect to lose “between $30 million and $60 million” in the coming school year “on top of $40 million it lost last year,” says county Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke. That could break down, depending on the final state budget, to about $1,500 less per student.

The situation is “truly horrific,” she says. Already, school districts have done away with at least 400 jobs, says Burke. “There have been significant layoffs—custodial, secretarial, transportation. There will be fewer teachers.”

In Burke’s own office, which oversees several of the county’s smaller school districts and coordinates countywide education programs, one-third of employees have been affected. “We’ve cut hours and jobs. It’s all squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. I have no more holes to cut. We will need to go into furlough strategy.”

Fifteen hundred bucks a student? That seems clear enough, but public school financing is a complicated beast. Before tax dollars—or even your donations to a local school foundation—find their way into a classroom, they must navigate a labyrinthine web shaped by court decisions, voter-approved initiatives, restrictive state and federal regulations and, of course, politics.

Understanding of the process by outsiders, i.e., parents and other taxpayers, is difficult at best. They are hampered by a plethora of obfuscating acronyms, ever-shifting funding mechanisms and, in this era of shrinking news coverage, scant public information about exactly what school districts are doing. (In Marin, the local news media don’t report all school board decisions, and trying to glean up-to-date data from some clunky district websites can be tougher than mastering freshman algebra.)

What you need to know is this:

Most Marin school districts depend more on local property taxes than on state or federal financing. This can be a positive because if local taxes produce more revenue than a district needs, it keeps the extra. But it can also be a negative because the district has no control over its revenue, especially when property values are falling, as they are now. And many, but not all, Marin districts also benefit greatly from local school foundations. (Kiddo, for example, last school year gave Mill Valley schools more than $1.7 million to pay for the arts curriculum.)

These districts, says Burke, are already going to lose state and federal spending tied to specific programs (such as those for disadvantaged or gifted children), then “will be hit again and again as property taxes dip. We will be looking at an ongoing issue that will be more severe in our community than in other places.”

What you also need to know is this: the same recessionary forces responsible for the funding cuts are also jeopardizing Marin schools’ other critical lifeline—community involvement.

 “One of the unique things about these public schools,” says Burke, “is that if they perform at the highest level, we’re going to support them. We in Marin understand the connection between good schools and economic prosperity. Our community schools have become dependent on that level of support, which shows itself not just in dollars but in human resources—volunteers.

“We are seeing,” she says, “that that type of support cannot be counted on right now. Some people (who were volunteers) are going back to work because maybe their spouse lost a job. Some people are unable to donate as they did previously—not because they don’t think it is important, but because they’re having to put food on the table. That’s another side to this.” Ultimately, though, all the best intentions of educators, all the ugly partisanship in Sacramento and all the anguished concerns of parents come down to one question—how well are we educating the kids?

By the time you read this, Jackie Flax and her contemporaries will be back in their classrooms, from Novato to Bolinas to Marin City.

“In not many days, those bright-eyed children are going to be there and they expect us to be there,” Burke says. “We need to get everybody clear. We need to understand the importance of making those kids feel welcome.”

Now more than ever, she says, local schools need the community to step up and fill the gaps. “I can’t tell you how important it is that we need their hands in the classroom,” she says, referring to parents. “I want the children to be able to walk in and for us to be ready.”

How to Learn More

To learn more about the finances of your local school district, start with the district website. Some, like Novato Unified, provide in-depth details. Others are more cursory. A number of other organizations track school funding issues and compile data on funding and test scores:

• Ed-Data: Revenue, expenses, ADA spending, links to all Marin school district sites, and much more on all California public schools.

• EdSource: News feed on school finance issues; backgrounders on funding terms, and more.

• California Dept. of Education: API test scores. Click on county info for Marin.

• Great Schools: Private ranking of schools, parent feedback, scores and more.