Facing the potential loss of up to $200 million in state money to help educate impoverished students, Los Angeles Unified is scrambling to comply with new state rules requiring financial verification for every low-income pupil.
The district is recording public service announcements and nudging parents with letters and robocalls, trying to persuade them to submit the one-page form listing the number of people in their household and annual income. The district has received just 22 percent of the forms distributed last month to 138,000 students at 380 low-income schools, but has until March 21 to collect the rest.
A new school funding formula provides extra money for disadvantaged students -- a significant boost for Los Angeles Unified, where 80 percent of the kids qualify for free or discounted school lunches. Los Angeles Unified has been counting on that revenue, and officials worry about a devastating budget deficit if all of the forms aren't returned.
"Every single form is incredibly important, and we need parents to complete it," Superintendent John Deasy said Tuesday. "It affects the future funding of LAUSD."
Under guidelines for federally subsidized school lunches, districts must collect financial forms from low-income families every four years. At schools where at least 80 percent of students qualify, the district presumes that all kids are eligible and provides meals for everyone.
LAUSD typically includes the financial form in the information packet it distributes to parents at the start of the school year. Because the state released its verification rule after classes had started, district officials had hoped they could use the federal data rather than having to distribute and collect new forms.
However, state officials said that would be unfair to other districts around California that are complying with the guidelines.
"To receive funds aimed toward the neediest students, LAUSD -- and every other district around the state -- must demonstrate that those students exist," said a statement released Monday by Rich Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent of public instruction for the state. "(A)llowing LAUSD to circumvent the same paperwork that every other district is required to do would deny much-needed funding to other students around the state."
Deasy fired back Tuesday, saying LAUSD shouldn't have to prove that low-income students exist at schools in high-poverty areas.
"I invite Rich Zeiger to walk with me through Florence-Firestone, Pacoima and Watts -- among the poorest neighborhoods served by L.A. Unified -- for vivid evidence that this district serves thousands of students living in circumstances of abject poverty," Deasy said in a statement. "It's profoundly disturbing that because of a unilateral change in the reporting procedure, the state is threatening to shortchange schools that serve our students in greatest need."
Under the Local Control Funding Formula, the new system for financing public education, districts receive additional money for poor students, English-learners and foster youth. The formula relies on an "unduplicated" count of students, so a low-income student who is also an English-learner would be counted only once.
About 80 percent of LAUSD's 600,000 students live in poverty while 26 percent are proficient in a language other than English. Along with the supplement provided for foster youths, Los Angeles Unified estimates it will get an additional $200 million this year under the state's Local Control Funding Formula to help needy students.
While it takes just a couple of minutes to complete the form, Edgar Zazueta, Los Angeles Unified's chief lobbyist, said many families are reluctant because they fear retribution for being in the country illegally or feel the stigma of being labeled as low-income.
"There's more at stake" than with the federal meal application, Zazueta said. "That's so kids can eat. This has dollars attached to it."
Other districts with large concentrations of low-income students say they aren't having the same problem as Los Angeles Unified.
Long Beach Unified is dealing with the issue at 11 schools and has been whittling away at the total, a spokesman said.
Mark Skvarna, superintendent at Baldwin Park Unified, said about 92 percent of his district's students are low-income, and nearly all have turned in their paperwork.
"We've been very aggressive," he said. "It's been Job One for the last month. Anyone who didn't file got a phone call, and we even walked them through the process.
"We're looking at a supplement of about $5 million," Skvarna said. "For us, that's big bucks." ___