What happens now that West Contra Costa school board failed to pass budget?

FIle photo of empty classroom

Credit: AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File

Most school districts across California have already approved budgets for the upcoming school year along with a required planning document that gives a road map on how funds should be spent. It’s a routine process that by state law must happen by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

But what happens when a board fails to approve both by the deadline?

After the West Contra Costa school board last month voted down the planning document, better known as the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), Contra Costa County Office of Education officials are stepping in to support the district as it works to secure approval. The board didn’t get to vote on the budget at the June 26 meeting because the LCAP must be approved first. 

The accountability plan, which also includes district goals to improve student outcomes and how to achieve them, and the budget are linked; one cannot exist without the other. There’s $64.8 million of funding in the LCAP that can’t be used until the plan is approved by the board.

“You have to adopt the plan first before you can adopt the budget,” said Michael Fine, chief executive officer of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT).

“The budget becomes subsidiary to the plan in that it just becomes a supporting role to the plan, it’s one of the mechanisms that facilitates getting the plan done and implemented.”

Although the West Contra Costa Unified School District doesn’t currently have an adopted accountability plan or budget, the district is using its $484 million 2024-25 proposed budget in the interim to pay salaries and general operating costs, said Marcus Walton, director of communication at the county office of education. Previously, district officials thought they would revert to using the 2023-24 budget, but that has since changed.

At the June 26 meeting, district officials and some board members had the same concern — that rejecting the 203-page LCAP and not voting on a budget would mean losing local control. At the time, district staff didn’t have all the answers about what would happen next because they had never dealt with this situation. One district consultant even asked the board to consider voting on the LCAP again because without one, it would put the district in an unprecedented situation.

West Contra Costa is not losing local control.

The county office of education isn’t taking control of the LCAP or budget, confirmed Lynn Mackey, the county superintendent of schools. Since the vote, Mackey said she’s spoken with district Superintendent Chris Hurst, and the county and district’s LCAP teams have met. But there are no plans to re-create the LCAP or budget for the district, she said. 

This isn’t a scenario where a district would need to be taken over, Mackey said. That happens when a district goes insolvent and runs out of cash. 

“The LCAP can be a very complex document, it’s a beast,” Mackey said. “They’re (district staff) doing a great job, and they have done a great job. We will be meeting with them and supporting them as it goes back to the district for a vote.”

The next board meeting is set for July 17, but it’s unlikely the accountability plan will be brought back for a vote then, Mackey said. Key West Contra Costa staffers who work on the plan have been on vacation and are just starting to return. There won’t be enough time to post the LCAP before the meeting, which is a requirement, Mackey said. Neither the budget nor LCAP are currently on the agenda to be discussed or voted on at that meeting.

What happens if the board rejects the LCAP again? 

“Unfortunately, the California education code does not address what happens when an LCAP is not adopted by a school district,” Hurst said in his message to community members. “This is an unprecedented event in the state of California.”

Mackey said she would need to confer with state officials for next steps.

In a message to the community, district Superintendent Hurst said the county has advised the district to pass the accountability plan by Aug. 15, the county’s deadline to review LCAPs. After school boards pass them, the county must make sure the plans comply with the requirements, then give final approval.

The county then has until Aug. 30 to respond to districts if they have questions or need clarifications on the documents, Mackey said.

If the board approves the accountability plan and the budget by the Aug. 15 deadline, Mackey said, it signals to the county that major revisions aren’t necessary. However, the county still needs to impose that budget because it wasn’t passed before the June 30 deadline required in the state education code. 

The county could bill the district for helping it get the LCAP and budget approved, Mackey said, but the county has no intention of doing that.

What happens if the board does not pass a budget? 

Mackey said the county would review the proposed budget, and as long as it meets all requirements, that budget would be imposed by her office. 

It would be “foolish” for the board not to approve a budget, Fine said. “They need to approve the budget because that would give the county superintendent information, plus, then the district owns its budget. And that’s important.” 

Passing the LCAP

Between now and when the accountability plan will return for a vote, district officials are working to get it to a place where the board will approve it.

The two district board members who voted down the LCAP — Leslie Reckler and Mister Phillips — said a major problem for them was the lack of transparency in the document. Board President Jamela Smith-Folds was the only “yes” vote. Otheree Christian abstained, and Demetrio Gonzalez Hoy was absent. 

Many parents and other community members addressed the board during the June 26 meeting, asking the board to reject the LCAP and the budget, saying community input wasn’t reflected in the document. Public commenters said there was a lack of transparency in both proposals, that neither met student needs, and that they disenfranchised low-income students, English learners and students of color. Some speakers questioned whether the accountability plan complied with the law. 

It’s rare for districts to turn in an accountability plan that fully complies with the law, Mackey said. However, when a board approves it, the county can work with districts to bring the documents into compliance. 

Trustee Phillips said community concerns and not having a balanced budget were other reasons he voted down the LCAP. 

“I want to be very clear: The community needs to be heard,” Phillips said. “That’s not me saying everything the community wants should be put in there, but they are supposed to be heard, and I don’t feel like that happened.”

Some trustees have called the vote a failure of the board, but Phillips said that’s not accurate. 

“It was an opportunity for me to put brakes on another unbalanced budget. That’s why I did what I did. But it was not a failure,” Phillips said. “It was a conscious decision, I did it on purpose.”

District officials are projecting a $31.8 million budget deficit over the next three school years, with about $11.5 million in shortfalls projected for the upcoming school year. The plan was to use reserve funds over three school years to make up the deficit, which is a typical move, Fine said.

West Contra Costa has been in “financial distress for quite a while,” Fine said. “They were deep in distress, and they are working their way out of that hole.”

In an emailed statement, Reckler said the district should now “retool their presentation to the board and public and re-present it, tailoring it to specific questions” raised by board members and the District Local Control Accountability Plan Committee (DLCAP), which consists of parents and members of community organizations.

The board can then give district staff comments and direct it to take any additional steps, Reckler said.

Christian also said he abstained from voting on the accountability plan because the document lacked transparency and failed to include parent feedback. He said the document should plainly state how money is being spent to meet district goals and how programs are benefiting students, which hasn’t happened. 

“Those who get paid the big bucks should be the ones to make sure this stuff is done right,” Christian said. “Let’s do it right, let’s make it right, let’s not have hidden agendas, and let’s spell it out.”

If there are substantial changes to the LCAP, it could mean big changes to the budget. It’s too soon to know what kind of changes are being made, but Mackey said even if money needs to be shifted around, it doesn’t appear there will be major revisions.

“It’s challenging,” Mackey said. “As much work as you do on transparency, I do feel like there’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t feel the LCAP is very transparent.”

Even if the accountability plan meets all the state requirements, some boards want more or for staff to go “above and beyond, which is understandable,” Mackey said.

“My hope is that they (board members) don’t hold it hostage for things that you can’t go back and fix,” Mackey said. “If they want something different in the future, set that up now so as the LCAP writers are going forward, they know exactly what is expected so this doesn’t happen again.”

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