Control issue: Grant money in hands of local districts

An Assembly bill signed Sept. 29 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has Chico school officials expecting it will loosen the reins on how local districts can spend money from state grants.

AB 825 consolidates 26 categorical programs—$1.8 billion worth of block grants—into five blocks and shifts funding decisions on them from the state to the local level.

Schwarzenegger, who first mentioned the idea during his campaign for governor, stated in a press release, “By consolidating these categoricals, we are reducing the bureaucratic red tape in Sacramento and empowering local communities to meet the specific needs of their students.”

The six block grants will organize funding by themes such as pupil retention, teacher training and school safety. The money can still be used only for the same types of previously allowed purposes, but the new rules will give the school board discretion on whether to give a monetary boost to certain programs it deems most needy and give less money to others. Districts could augment a program by as much as 20 percent and transfer as much as 15 percent from one program to another.

“It’ll be much easier,” said Randy Meeker, the CUSD’s assistant superintendent in charge of business services. “We’re not getting any new money; it’s how we’re able to spend the money.”

For example, Meeker said, instead of having $600,000 locked into specific programs, the CUSD could use some of the money for uses, such as transportation, that currently encroach on the general fund.

Trustee Anthony Watts said he’s “excited and encouraged,” feeling like the CUSD’s hands are being untied and the new freedom will end problems such as the district’s confusion over how bilingual-education funds could be spent, which ended in a reprimand and the state ordering the CUSD to reallocate money it had wrongly put toward teaching staff.

“Now many of these sorts of restrictions about how categorical money is spent will be lifted. This is truly monumental and signals a sea change in thinking and policy,” Watts said. “I welcome it, as I often felt like the state rules on categorical programs had the entire school board in an economic straightjacket.

“It allows school boards statewide to once again have the flexibility needed to allow foresight and problem-solving skills enter into the process of defining local education and the local education budget,” he added.

Meeker said the idea of consolidating grants is not a new one. “We’ve had multiple governors propose it, but no one’s been able to get it through the Legislature,” he said, suggesting interest groups stonewalled the changes.

"It’s good for schools, and it’s good for local boards," Meeker said.