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Lesson 8.7

Districts Control How Money Gets to the Classroom

If a school budget falls and no one notices, does it make a sound?

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If your school district office seems powerful, it might be because they are the ones cutting the checks. The responsibility for managing and disbursing funds for everything from paychecks to school supplies lies in the hands of the school district. (Well, technically, money flows through Local Education Agencies (LEAs), but most LEAs are school districts. Charter schools and county offices of education also fall into the "LEA" category. So now you know.)

The District Budget Process

As explained in Lesson 8.3, California school districts depend on the state for most of their annual revenues. State leaders have until June 30 each year to decide on a state budget and on school funding. But by law, LEAs also have to adopt a final budget at the end of June for their coming school and fiscal year, which starts on July 1. As a result, school district officials use informed estimates and assumptions to create their annual budgets. The planning typically starts in earnest by January, but budget planning and management are year-round concerns in most school districts. (The budgeting process for charter schools is somewhat different, because charter schools must budget for facilities costs.)

Districts differ in how they present their budgets and in their attitude about public input. Some districts try to keep the information quiet. Others do all they can to present the information clearly and let the public know when feedback will be most helpful. Common to all districts is the legal obligation to present budget information at public school board meetings. The parent leaders who really understand their school district budgets are generally those who make a point of attending board meetings regularly and who aren’t shy about asking for clarification from district business officials or the superintendent’s office when necessary.

Who Controls the Money?

School districts, in turn, manage local schools. In the majority of California districts, the central office decides most of the details about how schools and classrooms will operate, including a great deal about how they use resources. That can include everything from the number of students per classroom to where to purchase supplies to how many custodians are needed.

Good Intentions
Districts get money for kids who are poor /
or speak only limited English. /
But does that money carry through /
after the budget is finished?

Most California schools have a site budget, which the school principal controls, often with the help of a site council or similar group that includes parents and school staff. These site budgets usually cover only non-staff costs because staffing decisions are made by the district. To the extent that school accounting includes staff expenses at all, the figures are almost always calculated on the basis of district-wide average costs rather than the true salary costs for individuals. This often leads to a misleading view of how equitably financial resources are used. Imagine two schools, each with the same number of teachers. Using district-wide average costs, both schools appear to receive equal resources. But this is false. If one of the schools has a larger number of experienced teachers, the true staff costs of that school are higher than the school with less experienced teachers who have lower actual salaries.

Districts are required to disclose actual staff costs at the site level in School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs). But many ignore the requirement.

The Education Trust-West pursued a deep analysis of the effect of teacher seniority on the distribution of actual resources in schools. The findings of its original study, The Hidden Gap, highlighted the likelihood that high-poverty schools are disproportionately staffed with inexperienced teachers. This analysis influenced few changes, but it did drive some interest in transparency. Districts are now required to include actual salary costs in their School Accountability Report Cards (SARC), a public document that in theory is available for each school each year. Unfortunately, districts differ in how they calculate these numbers, limiting the comparability among districts. The data are also not systematically collected or summarized in a manner that permits analysis. California’s data deficiencies are discussed further in Lesson 9.5.

A few districts have tried to put schools in charge of more of their spending decisions, up to or even including their personnel budgets. Over the years, districts like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland Unified have taken on this idea, with mixed success. More recently, Pivot Learning Partners worked with several California school districts to explore both the opportunities and challenges involved in changing to a site-based budgeting approach.


Under LCFF, school districts control the allocation of funds to schools. The largest use of funds in education is for staff salaries and benefits, which can vary greatly with staff seniority. One report is designed to provide transparency to how much money is actually spent at each school site. Which one is it?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Brandi Galasso October 8, 2015 at 10:29 am
Does any one know how much per student our schools should recieve. If district recieves $9000 per student how much does school get per student? Because district doesnt actually say.
user avatar
Steven N October 1, 2015 at 12:25 pm
The SARC (School Accountability Report Card) are required by the State, are posted by the State and districts. They contain the average teacher salary At A School, in relation to the average at a district. Although the comparisons disrict-to-district are invalid (TCOE Total Cost Of Employment is better): I find the school-to-school comparisons very useful myself.
My District is now submitting and posting these locally on the proper schedule (January of every year). Yeah our District Office (Karen R. and Cathy B.)!
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