Small districts face problems that don’t trouble big LEAs

Small districts face problems that don’t trouble big LEAs

(Calif.) The California State Board of Education struggled at their November meeting to find a just route in arbitrating a small school district’s request to waive–for a fourth time–professional certification requirements of an educational interpreter.

The request, which ended up being denied on a split vote, posed a policy dilemma for the board, and placed a spotlight on the daily challenge many small districts face when it comes to providing for any number of needs–from students with disabilities, to filling job openings or keeping up with facility repairs.

“Where we see this kind of a problem come to light is when a small school district is faced with an extreme service requirement,” said Michael Fine, chief administrative officer at the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-sponsored intervention agency. “Even the placement of just one special needs student in a small district can immediately put that district into financial distress.”

Small school districts, which are generally defined as those with enrollments of less than 2,500 students,  still make up almost 60 percent of the slightly more than 1,000 districts in California.

Although there has been some effort by the state to encourage consolidation, some rural communities are so remote that mergers with neighbors are impractical. Today, there remain 25 districts that serve fewer than 20 students–seven have fewer than 10 students, and one, Alpine County Office of Education has just five, according to the California Department of Education.

Despite their size, small school districts are required to meet all of the same educational mandates of every other school district. To patch services together, small districts often have get creative.

“When I was superintendent at Wheatland, I had to transport a student to Sacramento every day,” said Debra Pearson, executive director of the Small School District Association. “So I would contact the districts around me, like Marysville or Yuba City, to see if I could share those costs with them.”

Small districts will often pool their funding with neighboring LEAs to try and achieve economies of scale. There is also an emphasis on hiring staff members that can perform multiple duties.

It is not uncommon, for instance, that very small districts share superintendents and or business officers. And county offices of education in rural areas typically coordinate instruction support including curriculum development and services for special education.

Such efforts are not always successful in keeping costs in check. According to a 2012 report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, small and very small LEAs often spend a larger share of their budget to cover overhead costs than the larger districts, and thus have less for instruction.

“While serving as the superintendent at Wheatland the district was required to transport one student to Sacramento each day for services,” said Debra Pearson, Executive Director of the Small School Districts Association.  “So we had to work with larger districts around us, like Marysville or Yuba City, to see if we could share costs for transportation.”

The problem Plumas faced with providing sign language services to a deaf student might be as much one of proximity as much as resources. In addition to having an enrollment of less than 2,000 students, Plumas is located in the northern Sierra Nevada town of Quincy, which sits about three hours east of Redding, and an hour and half west of Reno.

At issue was an educational interpreter, who’d worked for the district since 2012, and had been excused through the waiver process three times by the state board in hopes that she would eventually pass the sign language assessment.

But after evaluating the fourth waiver request this fall, the California Department of Education hadn’t seen any progress and recommended denying the waiver. That decision, CDE officials said during the November hearing on the waiver, wasn’t one easily made because they knew either way they would be putting new burdens on an already pressed district office.

The board went back and forth over the question. Granting the wavier would short-change services to at least some of the district’s deaf students. Denying it meant that the district would have to either pay the cost of transporting impacted students to somewhere that the proper services could be provided; or find someone locally that can do the work–which the district would also pay for.

FCMAT’s Fine said that small rural districts often don’t have the depth of service providers locally that big districts do. “Especially for those services that require a specialized certification,” he said. “These services don’t exit everywhere.”

Resolution of the problem, Oestreich said, came as a result of her staff working together. She said Plumas Unified employs one certificated teacher that serves students with hearing problems and she agreed to provide necessary services district wide.

“It is flexible staff who are willing to meet the needs of our students that make our district successful,” she said.