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‘Aha!’ Mastering school funding and finance 

MIG equips governance teams for LCFF, other ‘current events’

Fall 2013

When school funding and finance expert Ron Bennett teaches the data-dense School Finance module that’s part of CSBA’s newly redesigned Masters in Governance program, he must compress at least 12 hours of material—by his own estimate—into one intensive session.

With the advent of the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula that’s bringing such fundamental shifts in school funding and accountability, and the transformative changes in teaching and testing required by the Common Core State Standards, things are about to get even more complicated. As part of CSBA’s comprehensive MIG overhaul, launched this fall, the School Finance module was offered in both half-day and full-day sessions.

“Teaching school finance is like drinking from a fire hose,” says Bennett, CEO of School Services of California Inc. “The material keeps expanding and we use every minute of the time available to teach it. While MIG is often viewed as a foundational course, board members want us to bring it to life by including practical advice on the issues of the day. Our faculty is staffed with practitioners who are fully able to meet that expectation.”

Even before the emergence of these revolutionary developments, MIG school finance experts and the governance teams in the fact-filled course had a lot of ground to cover, including but not limited to: an understanding of the history of school finance; fundamental financial principles; developing budgets and setting priorities; finance and labor negotiations; multiyear financial projections; determining fiscal health; budget oversight and audits; the budget and the community; and more.

The redesigned MIG program, with its hybrid classroom approach, helps students make the most of precious class time by giving them access to the basics through homework assignments and online instruction beforehand, so they come to class prepared for higher-level instruction, in-depth discussion and interactive activities that mirror real-world situations they’ll face in their respective school districts and county offices of education.

Bennett gets down to nuts and bolts with his students, helping them analyze actual financial disclosure forms from real districts. “I love to see the light go on when students realize they can really understand a budget or financial disclosure form. If I am a board member, I need to know how we are spending our money. I like to see those ‘Aha!’ moments when they realize they can read those complicated-looking forms,” he says.

‘Moving targets’ and ‘current events’

LCFF and the Common Core’s new math and English curricula and tests are both “moving targets,” Bennett says, with the bulk of the rules and policy directives yet to be worked out in the coming months and years. CSBA will continuously adjust MIG curriculum and instruction to reflect what’s new.

Bennett says the School Finance module features new segments dealing with LCFF and other breaking news relating to governance board responsibilities.  

“Both the LCFF and the Common Core standards increase the level of complexity of the course,” he says. “Board members know that more will be expected of them, so they want the faculty to ‘double-down’ on preparing them for the greater challenges facing them. Completion of MIG is not only a hallmark of the professional board member, it is essential to board members being equipped to make good decisions for student and the community.”At School Finance modules offered this fall in San Jose and Rancho Cucamonga, CSBA Policy and Governmental Relations analysts updated MIG students about the latest developments in the emerging LCFF and Common Core initiatives.

“We are indeed changing the module to deal with the LCFF,” says Bennett, a former deputy superintendent and chief financial officer for the Long Beach Unified School District. “The most important changes will be in two areas:  First, we will need to change the revenue generation segments of the model, and we know enough to do that now. Second, we will need to expand the discussion of the board’s responsibilities under the Local Control and Accountability Plan. The LCAP is an evolving work in progress and our instruction will evolve with it.”

But because the State Board of Education won’t issue final regulations until next spring, MIG will need to be flexible and nimble. “In the meantime,” Bennett says, “we have added a section called ‘current events’ where we will be able to apprise attendees of the status of the LCAP and the responsibilities of local boards.”

Veteran school superintendent Bob Caine, who helped design the original Masters in Governance training 15 years ago and has been instrumental in the revamp, says MIG modules will include references to and exercises related to the LCFF. “We want our content to be as current as possible,” he says. “We strive to be flexible, responsive and relevant.”

Tools for good times and bad

MIG content will continue to evolve to reflect other new school finance challenges. How, for example, will governance boards manage the welcome but complicated fiscal flexibility afforded under LCFF? After several years of crippling austerity that forced local educational agencies throughout California to lay off teachers, cut classes and programs, shorten the school year and increase class sizes—among other painful deficit-related moves—there are certain to be competing pressures for the new money.

“After years of being in a cutting mode, there’s finally money,” says longtime MIG faculty member Leslie DeMersseman. “But it’s not going to restore everything that was cut.”

Boards will need to listen to parents and teachers and set their own goals and priorities when determining where the funds are needed most. MIG must give them the tools to do that in good times and bad, DeMersseman says, and that means focusing on the big picture.

“We’ll respond to current events like the LCFF and Common Core,” she says, “but the basic responsibilities of the board remain the same.”

All these seismic shifts in school finance and policy have implications for many aspects of local governance that are relevant to every MIG module—not just School Finance.
“These changes impact communications, community relations and advocacy,” says DeMersseman. “It doesn’t matter what the issue is, the key components of good governance remain the same. Ideally we want to give boards the tools to deal with whatever challenges they face.”

Her colleague, Luan B. Rivera, another longtime faculty member, says the MIG curriculum will be infused with material relevant to the LCFF and its implications for local governance.

“The LCFF requires governance teams to think about school funding in an entirely new way,” Rivera says, “and the Common Core standards are going to dramatically change the way teachers teach and students learn. These new initiatives provide districts with exciting opportunities for innovation and change.”

—Carol Brydolf