Myths vs. Facts - The outlook for Mandate Funding

All school districts have a big interest in mandate reform. They want predictable funding for the costs of state mandated programs and activities, and a way to claim their fair share of that funding without onerous bookkeeping and audits.

Unfortunately, the latest proposal from the governor and Department of Finance is not that type of reform. Although the proposed block grant" funding for mandates may appear inviting at first glance, a careful look reveals major problems. The proposal provides no certainty of funding for existing and future state mandates, and subjects districts to an annual audit of every single mandated program and activity as a condition of funding. This makes a bad situation for school districts even worse.

The governor's proposal starts off by "suspending" a long list of existing mandates, with the intention of eliminating those mandates in the near future if the appropriate legislative policy committees agree with this approach. This raises an immediate problem - many of the mandates slated for suspension/elimination, such as mandates addressing student truancy or supporting student physical fitness, represent important policies that key legislators and their constituents have already gone on record to support. Rather than suspend first and ask questions later the Legislature should systematically review the mandates, eliminate those that don't represent good policy, and commit to funding the rest.

For those mandates that are not suspended, the governor proposes to create a block grant option that would allow districts to receive funding without submitting reimbursement claims. But there's a catch. The districts would still have to meet all the statutory requirements of each mandate as a condition of receiving the block grant funding, and compliance would be monitored by annual audits of every mandated activity. This would be accomplished through a dramatic expansion of the state Controller's K-12 Audit Guide, with multiple audit procedures added for each mandate - hardly the streamlined and less bureaucratic process districts were expecting. Any audit exception could put the entire block grant allocation at risk. Not only does the block grant add to the overall bureaucracy of the mandate process, it will be accompanied by huge increases in annual audit costs, completely at the expense of the district.

Even more troubling is the lack of any certainty regarding funding for either the new block grant option or for the existing claim reimbursement process. The governor's proposal to fund the block grant at $200 million for this year will be controversial at best given the significant cost increase over the roughly $90 million allocated for annual mandate reimbursements last year. Moreover, any amount actually allocated for the block grant will be one-time funding only with no guarantee for a similar amount of funding next year. Finally, the proposal allows districts to continue to submit reimbursement claims for the actual costs of complying with state mandates, but no funding is proposed to reimburse those districts that choose not to accept the one-time block grant offer. The "choice" between block grant and actual cost reimbursement must truly be a choice, not a bait and switch.

The better solution for school districts is actually pretty straightforward. Get rid of the arbitrary $1000 minimum claim amount for each mandate, a rule that discourages districts from receiving fair reimbursement. Require the state to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide reimbursement funding every year, and stop the continuous games with deferrals, suspensions and other gimmicks. Issue clear parameters and guidelines within two years of any new legislative mandates so that everyone knows exactly which activities are mandated and how to claim for reimbursement. And, when necessary, conduct timely and fair audits of reimbursement claims instead of denying funding because districts can no longer locate source documents for activities that often occurred as long as a decade ago.

Some folks in Sacramento are trying hard to manipulate mandates in such a way that leave schools with little in the way of funding, undermines the constitutional obligation for full reimbursement and sticks districts with doing the mandates anyway. There is an old saying around the Capitol that goes, "there is no such thing as a good amendment to a bad bill." While this is being done in the budget process, the idea is the same. All school districts need to oppose this bag of tricks and simply advocate for the kind of meaningful reform that actually helps schools. Having full and fair funding on those mandates that have been established would be a great start. Your legislators are interested in your views and we encourage you to send an email or call their local offices to voice your concerns.