Local schools eye education reform fund

In hopes of getting federal grants to offset the loss of state money, two local school districts and the county board of education have said they’ll participate in a new federal education reform plan.

But the county’s eight other school districts have rejected it, saying the Race to the Top program offers too many unknowns and too much risk without promising long-term financial relief.

“We need every resource we can possibly get, and if there’s some money we can use to develop teacher training, then we’re going to go for it,” said Jim Hogeboom, superintendent for the Lucia Mar Unified School District, one of the districts that signed on to the program.

Besides Lucia Mar, the Cayucos Elementary School District and the San Luis Obispo County Board of Education signed agreements to abide by changes proposed in federal education reforms required for the state to win up to $700 million in federal grants.

Race to the Top is a federal competitive grant program designed to reward states working on reforms in four areas: adopting common education standards, building data systems that measure student success, improving efforts to train teachers and principals, and intervening in low-performing schools. The third area has become controversial because it proposes making student achievement data such as test scores a major factor in teacher and principal evaluations.

It’s not known yet how much the two districts and the county Board of Education might receive if the state’s application is successful.

Among those districts coping with cuts is the Paso Robles Public Schools, where up to 39 jobs could be cut. With a meeting about that issue set to take place within a month, Superintendent Kathy McNamara said, the district hasn’t had time to look at the federal program and its requirements.

“The district needs to do more research, but at this time our focus is on the budget, so the issue is on the back burner,” she said. “As we get through the budget challenge we will research the Race to the Top program.”

The other districts declining to participate in the program include Atascadero Unified, Coast Unified, San Luis Coastal Unified, San Miguel Joint Union, Shandon Joint Unified and Templeton Unified. Superintendent Tom Apkarian of Pleasant Valley Joint Union Elementary said the district initially signed on to the program but has decided not to pursue it.

Officials in the participating districts also expressed some reservations about parts of the program, specifically those dealing with teacher assessment.

“If for some reason they come up with requirements that we think are ridiculous, we’ll just say thanks” but no thanks, Hogeboom said.

$4.3 billion fund

California is competing for a share of the $4.3 billion in the Race to the Top fund, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s education reform efforts. President Barack Obama has indicated that he wants to continue the program and has requested $1.35 billion for it for the next fiscal year.

The grants will be announced in April; a second round of applications is due June 1.

Local school districts face an estimated $8.6 million cut in Gov. Arnold Schwarz-enegger’s 2010-11 budget proposal. That works out to $6,250 per classroom, county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said.

“That’s perhaps one of the reasons the districts did not apply” for the Race to the Top program funds, Crocker said. “By the time this shakes out, we may not see that much money.”

Crocker said the Board of Education decided it could put Race to the Top money into expanding its training for teachers.

Hogeboom said the program’s goals are mostly aligned with what the Lucia Mar district is already doing, such as using data systems to improve teaching.

He said the district could opt out of the program if it becomes too time-consuming or if district officials do not agree with its method of assessing teachers.

The Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association, however, declined to sign on to the program, though the association didn’t formally oppose it either.

“From what I’ve heard ... a limited amount of resources would come out of it,” said association President Kevin Statom, an Arroyo Grande High School teacher.

Statom said the association had concerns about keeping local control over district schools and that some aspects of Race to the Top could take control of a struggling school.

Cayucos Superintendent George Erdelyi said his district filed the necessary paperwork to stay in the mix for the money, but the school board and the teachers have “serious reservations” about the program because the criteria for participating have only been vaguely described.

He’s waiting for additional information on the requirements before the district will pursue it further.

Nearly half sign up

Statewide, 46.5 percent of all California school districts, direct-funded charter schools and regional occupation centers have signed agreements, covering 58.3 percent of the state’s 6.3 million students, said Hilary McLean, communications director with the state Department of Education.

Unlike the statewide districts, most of those in San Luis Obispo County have not signed on to the program.

“We’ve been very unclear about all the components of Race to the Top,” said Kathy Hannemann, assistant superintendent for educational services at Atascadero Unified School District. “It doesn’t give us any long-term relief.”

Hannemann said the district was also dissuaded from pursuing the grant because “we don’t have schools that are in deep academic trouble.”

“We feel like we’re making progress toward student improvement at the time without sanctions,” she said.

Chris Adams, Coast Unified School District superintendent, said he figured the program would require at least 640 extra hours of work from the district for paperwork and oversight, “plus having a bunch more limitations and accountability benchmarks. And we’d have to get the union to sign on,” which stewards said they weren’t willing to do.

Adams said the district is already moving forward with directions pushed by Race to the Top, such as “working on benchmark exams and our data, using more technology.”

“It’s all in our strategic plan,” he said.

Ed Valentine, superintendent of San Luis Coastal, said the revenue the district might receive when balanced against the additional program requirements, reporting obligations and labor contract changes did not make it a worthwhile pursuit.

In an e-mail to The Tribune, Valentine wrote that the district’s experience with federal obligations and unfunded mandates “makes us very cautious about this.”

Staff writers AnnMarie Cornejo, Sarah Linn, Pat Pemberton and Kathe Tanner contributed to this article.