Over the last few months, a controversy has been brewing in Culver City schools. The issue is whether booster clubs can use funds they raise to hire helpers in the classroom. The debate centers around a program at my child's school, El Marino Language School, where over the last 20 years, parents have raised money through the school’s booster club (ALLEM) to hire adjuncts for the Spanish and Japanese language immersion programs. As fluent speakers of the target language, adjuncts work with students, modeling the language.
Recently, I was asked to sign a petition to ‘save’ our adjuncts by a group called Parents Have Rights, formed by some parents at El Marino and other schools. Parents talked about how the adjuncts program was at risk. They said that ACE, the district’s classified workers union wanted to shut down the program.
I learned that the ‘threat’ was a letter requesting that the District negotiate with ACE over the adjuncts. Instead of letting the community speculate about what would happen to the adjuncts or who was to blame, the School Board held a Study Session to discuss the issue openly and address community concerns.
I attended the session and this is what I learned:
- District Counsel clarified that ACE is not threatening the District. The District is required to negotiate with representatives of its employees whenever work is being done that resembles work being performed by them. (Educational Employment Relations Act).
- The District can’t consider the adjuncts ‘volunteers’ as the Parents Have Rights supporters suggested, because they are compensated by ALLEM (Education Code section 35021).
- The situation at El Marino is unique, because it has existed for so long. The District’s legal counsel recommended a solution that is narrow and pragmatic. They said that typically, school districts are not allowed to ‘contract out’ services in order to reduce costs. But the District’s could contract with ALLEM under a specific statute (Education Code section 45103.1) that allows school districts to do so, if a contract was entered into before January of 2003. While a written contract does not currently exist between the district and ALLEM, legal counsel believes that it could be argued that an implied contract has existed over two decades. Counsel also recommended the Board enter into an agreement with ALLEM that specifies the work that adjuncts do, and the group’s responsibility to screen and supervise employees and protect the District from liability.
- Finally, the Superintendent clarified that booster clubs from other schools that are recognized by the District can ‘pass through’ funds to hire District employees.
This last option is not without benefits. Students are protected, as district employees are screened, hired, trained and supervised by district staff, instead of by parents. Parent groups are able to stretch their dollars, since they don’t have to cover the expenses of a payroll service, workers compensation or liability insurance. And workers benefit because they get sick and vacation days and get paid the same as others who are doing the same work.
The unique situation at El Marino might call for this pragmatic solution, but it does not resolve all the issues.
El Marino, unlike schools like La Ballona, El Rincon and Linwood Howe, does not receive Title I Funds. These are federal funds for schools with a larger number of students receiving free and reduced meals, the measure the government uses to determine whether students are facing the impacts of poverty. These funds are designed to help support student learning. Schools that receive Title I funds have an additional requirement added by the No Child Left Behind Act. Their instructional aides must be highly qualified, which means they must have an Associates or comparable degree.
And while parents at El Marino are able to raise nearly $150,000 every year to cover the adjuncts’ pay and related expenses, schools that receive Title I schools are typically less able to raise the same amount of funds consistently. Of course, how much a school raises is not a measure of how much parents care or how committed they are to their children’s education. But in the end, students in one school will continue to have more individual attention than students in other schools, which is contrary to the ideals of public education.
So where does that leave us? What can we do?
- We can work together to bring more funds to our schools. Just like we did last year, when we helped pass Measure EE, this November we will have a chance to vote to bring more funds to our schools. We are likely to have two initiatives on the ballot, one proposed by the Governor, and the other one by the PTA. I, for one, plan on voting for both, to make sure one passes.
- We can learn more about how other districts are dealing with the equity issues we face. For example, last November in Santa Monica, the School Board approved a policy that allows parents to raise funds for additional learning supports like computers, etc. through their booster clubs - but requires funding for staffing to be centralized through the District.
- We can work as a community. We have to at least agree that we share the same interest – doing right by our kids. We don’t have to choose between our kids interests’ and those of the people who work tirelessly to serve them, the front office staff that greet them every morning, the cafeteria workers that feed them, or the maintenance workers that clean up after the school day is done. And we can’t forget that soon enough, when our kids leave their elementary years, they will grow and learn together in the middle school and in the high school.
Claudia Vizcarra is a parent of a 5th grader at El Marino and an 8th grader at Culver City Middle School. She also works as Policy Director for LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer and previously worked at UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and then LA City Council Member Jackie Goldberg.