Lagunitas wrestles with funding change

03/03/2016

A change in how the Lagunitas School District’s nonprofit fundraising arm allocates donations to the district’s three programs has spurred backlash among some parents, teachers and staff, who fear the model could jeopardize the philosophical and educational integrity of Lagunitas’s tripartite composition.

In December, the directors of the parent-volunteer fundraising nonprofit Lead, Enrich, Achieve, Progress foundation—known as LEAP—agreed to discontinue the practice of distributing enrichment donations  to programs based on the number of students enrolled in each program. Instead, it will allocate funds through a grant application process. 

With the new model, LEAP will have the discretion to approve or deny applications based on the needs and reserves held by the three programs—the Open Classroom and Montessori programs and the middle school. 

Many in the district—particularly parents and teachers in the Open Classroom—worry the grant model will breed competition for LEAP funds, which supplement money raised independently by each program, and threaten the educational autonomy enjoyed by each. 

“The process of deciding how to spend enrichment money brings Open parents and teachers together,” said Larry Nigro, a 27-year Open Classroom teacher, at a meeting of the district’s board of trustees last week. “Without the leeway to control this part of the process, we risk homogenizing each program, and losing what makes each program unique and a real choice for parents.”

But LEAP says the change is a necessary response to district-wide budget cuts devised last year that shuffled how parcel tax revenue is spent. 

Over the next two years, the district will take about $73,000 in parcel tax revenue that formerly funded enrichment activities and instead put that money in the general fund. The parcel-tax shuffle and other reductions are expected to free up about $200,000 by the 2016-17 school year and close last year’s $165,711 budget deficit. 

Losing the parcel tax could leave enrichment activities—art, music, drama, technology and foreign language—underfunded in coming years.

LEAP directors say the new allocation model could shore up budgets for the middle school and Montessori program, neither of which has as much money in reserves as Open Classroom. 

The middle school and Montessori are both expected to have only $4,676 and $5,629 in the bank at the end of the year, compared to the $65,448 enjoyed by the Open Classroom. This spring, Open Classroom has 94 students, Montessori has 85 and the middle school has 105.

Richard Sloan, who has served as a district trustee since 1971 and helped create the Open Classroom, said that program has a larger reserve right now due to both successful fundraising by parents and cautious spending habits. 

“The key to this whole district is that the parent groups decide what education they want their children to have,” he said. “The programs should be able to decide how they spend the money they raise.” He and others feel the new model constitutes an overreach on the part of LEAP, which they consider simply a conduit for funds and not a decider of educational needs. 

But LEAP’s board president, Jeanette Rosen, said the foundation is not interested in influencing how programs spend their money—a stance that Mr. Sloan called “absolutely false.” Rather, Ms. Rosen said, the intent is to give each program a fair chance to preserve its enrichment activities. 

“It soon became apparent that, given the big disparity in program wealth, we would need to look at how we were allocating funds in order to make sure we were meeting the educational needs of all children in the district,” Ms. Rosen wrote in an email to the Light. “During flush times, it may work to just divide the pie evenly, but in a short-term crisis, there needs to be a safety net to give the programs time to do long-term planning and make important budget decisions for the students in their programs.”

Of LEAP’s 11 parent-volunteer board members, only three have children in the Open Classroom, while the remainder have children in the middle school or Montessori, or both. (One parent has children in both the Open Classroom and Montessori.)

Ms. Rosen stressed that the allocation model would more closely mirror the fundraising models of other Marin school districts. She also argued that the change would reduce competition among district programs, not inflame it.

“Ironically, one of the reasons we decided to switch was the feeling that programs were competing for students in order to receive more funding,” said Ms. Rosen, who is a middle school parent. “This was seen as a way to take pressure off the programs.”

Open Classroom’s parents and teachers have long fought to retain full control  over their program, where students participate in an alternative educational experience that relies on a philosophy of spontaneous and personalized learning, combines multiple grades in the same octagonal space and is steered by consensus decision-making between parents, staff and trustees. Earlier this month, parents and teachers sent LEAP a letter denouncing the allocation change and calling for a return to the student-enrollment model.

But LEAP’s board has pointed out that its bylaws state one of its purposes is to “determine which of the educational needs of the children in the schools of the Lagunitas School District would be benefitted by additional funding.” The grant-requested allocations, Ms. Rosen said, would prevent a program from banking “tens of thousands of dollars” during tough fiscal times while other programs that do not raise as much in donations face an uncertain future.

“We feel strongly that the foundation needs to look at the broad spectrum of the district’s finances, and not just cut equal pieces of the pie and deliver to each program without identifying where financial needs exist,” Ms. Rosen wrote in a follow-up letter to the Open Classroom.

Many attendees at last week’s meeting felt LEAP had not been transparent in its decision to change the model and had failed to communicate to the programs what was happening. Critics blasted it for the absence at the meeting of LEAP board members, only one of whom attended to participate in a discussion on fundraising allocation and methods in general.

“We need to feel that LEAP is ‘us’,” said Alison Double, an instructional aid for the Open Classroom. “Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to trust.”

Ms. Rosen told the Light that LEAP board members were aware of the meeting, but were under the impression that the public would only voice concerns about district fundraising to the board of trustees—not that there would be a two-way discussion on the allocation model.

“It was a giant assumption on the part of the Open Classroom leadership that LEAP was supposed to attend the last board meeting,” Mr. Rosen said in an email. “We hope that some of the Open Classroom parents that are opposing the new model will get involved in our foundation  and work with us on moving forward and making decisions about raising and allocating funds for the benefit of our district.”

The debate over the allocation change has set off a broader discussion in the Lagunitas community over how to increase fundraising in general. Many have advocated for emphasizing a more centralized, district-wide model like LEAP, as opposed to the individual efforts of the three programs.

But whatever the method, attendees at last week’s meeting mostly agreed that all parties would have to work together to increase funds.

“What I really believe is that every single person in our district wants to do well for the kids in the district,” said Meegan Ochs-Potter, the district’s board president. “And if we start with that as a premise, the hope is we can find common ground in figuring out how best to achieve that.”