No Child Left Behind leaves Oxnard school in a bind

Officials question Sacramento about who is going to pay the bill when test scores are too low

By David Courtland 08/21/2008

Oxnard Elementary School District is raising questions about a state Board of Education order, the only one of California’s 97 school districts to ask: Who is paying the cost of following a No Child Left Behind policy?

“We’re seeking clarification of some issues,” explained Superintendent Richard Miller. “They need to be cleared up before we can move forward, because there’s too much at risk otherwise.”

At its March 13 meeting, the state board voted to order districts that haven’t hit their NCLB targets to hire consultants whose job will be to make sure they do — for $250,000 per year that cash-strapped districts like Oxnard Elementary simply don’t have to spare.

“I’ve been to Sacramento. This is the only time the discussion was so confusing, neither the audience nor the board knew what was going on,” said Dennis O’Leary, an Oxnard Elementary trustee who attended the meeting with Miller. “The chair looked to his left and said, ‘We need our attorneys to figure out what we just voted on.’ “

O’Leary notes the school district has been waiting for a response from Sacramento officials for longer than the 45-day period the district was told it had to file its query in.

However, Miller said the state board had definitely indicated state funds would be provided for districts to hire the mandated consultants. But a funding bill failed to pass the legislature, leaving the expense in the same limbo as other costs while the state’s budget crisis goes unresolved in Sacramento.

Rio School District, also in Oxnard, contracted staff from the Ventura County Office of Education despite the funding uncertainty. But Angela Randolph, Rio’s assistant superintendent of education, said the district would have to consider reallocating money already earmarked for other things if the state doesn’t come up with it.

“We’re still hopeful the state is going to fund it,” said Randolph.

“Otherwise, we’ll have to look at categorical funding.”

The state board’s order is that the $250,000 is a flat fee paid to a district assistance intervention team (DAIT) regardless of the school district’s size, said Miller and O’Leary.

Miller and Oxnard Elementary trustees have interviewed three intervention team providers whom he is satisfied are all qualified, but trustees decided not to make a final decision on who gets the job until they know how the consultant’s fee is being paid.

“We’ve already taken $6 million out of the budget,” said Miller. “I suppose the only other thing we could do is look at what else we could cut to get those kinds of funds.”

The $250,000 would only pay the consultant’s fee — nobody knows who is supposed to pay the cost of following the consultant’s directions, which adds as much as another quarter of a million dollars to the district’s costs — or $500,000 annually to comply with the state board’s policy, said Miller.

O’Leary noted the consultant’s orders have to be followed regardless of whether local officials agree with them, raising another issue Miller wants clarified: Who is ultimately accountable for meeting NCLB goals?

“Here’s where things get a little fuzzy,” said O’Leary. “These providers are to help and review and make suggestions, but if need be, also have the power to veto any decisions that they feel are going in the wrong direction.”

This creates a dilemma for the school board trustees, who traditionally have been more answerable to voters than state bureaucrats, said Miller.

“If (the consultants) have that authority, it detracts from the board,” said Miller. “Does the board answer to Sacramento or the local community? This changes everything. That’s a fundamental difference.”

Miller’s take on the consultant’s authority is that it puts the responsibility for meeting NCLB target scores on the DAIT provider, not the school board.

“If they are saying you must have this DAIT thing, with authority comes responsibility,” said Miller. “They would be responsible for the outcome, because you can’t have authority without responsibility and accountability.”

Another question Miller and O’Leary would like answered is when a DAIT provider is no longer needed.

“That’s another question that’s out there: What does it take to get out (of intervention)?” asked Miller, who says one consultant told him nobody knows how to get out.

“If the state says they have to be responsible, what’s the ‘it’ and at that point, are we out, or does this go on forever?” asked Miller. “It certainly hasn’t been defined as an exit.”

Miller emphasizes that he and the trustees aren’t challenging the state board’s right to give the order, but are only asking the board to clarify it.

“There’s just a lot of questions: we’re just saying we need to know a little more about what’s going on here before we can move forward,” said Miller. “We may create this great result that turns out not to be in the direction of getting out.”   

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