Cleaning up GATE confusion, Fair Share and how the budget crisis is hitting home

By Marsha Sutton


Marsha Sutton

In a recent column, it was reported that the Del Mar Union School District was diverting state money for its Gifted and Talented Education program to other district needs, but confusion has since arisen.

DMUSD’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instructional services, Holly McClurg, initially said the GATE money being diverted amounted to a few thousand dollars. This money, she said, had been used to test students for GATE identification purposes and would now be directed to other district programs such as teacher professional development.

However, a March 23 board meeting agenda item included a chart showing that the amount from the state for the district’s GATE program was $14,204 and that this money was being returned to the state for the district’s Fair Share payment (more on Fair Share later in this column).

The impression from the original column, based on the district’s information, was that the total from the state for GATE was just a few thousand dollars and that this money would now be used for professional development. Instead, it’s much more, and all of it is being returned to the state.

When asked to explain the discrepancy, McClurg wrote in an email: “To clarify, the district’s program for advanced learners is not changing. A goal of the DMUSD program is to provide meaningful, rigorous learning opportunities commensurate with the qualities and potential of each student. That will continue to be a goal and focus for our district’s program. The only piece that is changing is the formal identification process that was previously done in 6th grade. Regarding the funding: When factoring in the indirect costs and personnel associated with monitoring the formal assessment process, the amount available for other purposes is minimal.”

Because this answer was so obfuscating and unresponsive to my actual question, I tried asking again. McClurg responded a second time, saying in part, “Exclusive of a few thousand dollars that were left in the GATE budget for the purpose of testing our students, the GATE funds were diverted to pay for our ‘fair share’ to the state. GATE funds that had been diverted were offset with our district’s general fund to pay for professional development for teachers…”

DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody explained further. “That actual $14,000 goes to the state from the GATE budget,” he said. “But we have money in our budget that we choose to spend on GATE just as if it was the state’s money.”

In other words, the district takes money out of its general fund and uses it for what GATE money from the state previously provided, minus the testing which is about $2,000 of the $14,000.

Peabody said the district had set aside a few thousand dollars to administer GATE testing. And since GATE testing is being discontinued, so is the money.

The rest of the money — the $14,000 less the $2,000 dedicated to testing — “we put into professional development for GATE,” Peabody explained.

He said the district’s Fair Share payment comes out of categorical programs. “But we don’t want to see those categoricals — such as GATE, special education, English language learners — harmed,” he said. “So we take money from our general fund and backfill it to make up for what the state takes out of those programs.”

Due to the severity of California’s education funding crisis, the state has given districts the flexibility to use money previously earmarked for what’s known as Tier III programs for other purposes.

The March 23 DMUSD chart listed 12 Tier III categorical programs and the dollar amount for each. The programs total about $975,000, all of which is being returned to the state as part of the district’s Fair Share payment. The major programs on Del Mar’s list include:

 School and Library Improvement (SIP): $229,810

 IMFRP – Instructional Materials: $224,416

 Deferred Maintenance: $135,933

 Professional Development Block Grant: $134,124

 P.E. Teacher Incentive Grant: $117,441

 Arts and Music Block Grant: $56,832

 Math and Reading Professional Development: $26,063

 Peer Assistance and Review: $20,655

 Gifted and Talent Education: $14,204

Is Fair Share really fair?

So what is Fair Share, and why are local districts struggling and budget juggling?

Basic Aid school districts receive the bulk of their money through property taxes, while the other “Revenue Limit” districts don’t receive enough in property taxes and need money from the state to reach a predetermined minimum level of funding. Because of this, state cutbacks to education have impacted Revenue Limit districts more than Basic Aid districts.

To share the pain, Basic Aid districts agreed several years ago to return some of their money to the state in an amount that’s calculated to be proportionally the same as the cuts less wealthy Revenue Limit districts are having to absorb. So Basic Aid districts – which include San Dieguito, Del Mar, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe – are giving back what’s called their Fair Share of money.

Local districts are, for the most part, choosing to return their Fair Share money from the funds the state sends them for earmarked categorical programs. The money still comes to Basic Aid districts from the state, but the districts are required to send back their Fair Share.

Peabody said it’s the district’s decision where to find the money to return to the state for the Fair Share contribution. “It does come to us, but then we send them a check right back,” he said.

The state doesn’t care which funds the money comes from, said San Dieguito Union High School District superintendent Ken Noah. “They just want their percent,” he said.

Last year’s Fair Share, which is calculated primarily on the budget as it relates to enrollment numbers, was 5.81 percent, and next year’s is 8.92 percent.

For the Del Mar Union School District, the Fair Share this year was $1,476,642, and next year’s estimate is $2,306,700, Peabody said.

Leslie Fausset, superintendent of the Solana Beach School District, said this year’s Fair Share was $972,000, and next year’s is expected to be $1.5 million.

Rancho Santa Fe School District superintendent Lindy Delaney said this year’s Fair Share for her district was $257,651, and next year she is expecting to owe about $363,000.

For San Dieguito, the number is more complicated. Because San Dieguito is a new Basic Aid district, its coffers are not as well-stocked as the other three local elementary school districts.

Noah explained that the Fair Share cannot exceed the property taxes a district receives.

For example, if 8.92 percent represents $8 million, and the district’s excess taxes above Revenue Limit are only $4 million, then San Dieguito’s Fair Share is the excess tax, or the $4 million. So the district would lose all its excess property tax money, but would not have to dip into other money to reach the 8.92 percent.

For well-established Basic Aid districts, they would likely still have excess property tax money, even after paying the state the full 8.92 percent, even though programs are being significantly impacted.

According to Noah, San Dieguito paid $5.2 million for this year and estimates it will owe between $5 million and $7.5 million next year, “depending on the interpretation of how the 8.92 percent of Revenue Limit is applied to ‘low wealth’ Basic Aid districts relative to ‘excess property tax’ collection,” he said.

An untenable expectation

To add a final depressing note, the education advocacy organization School Services of California reported last week that the state may make cuts to education in the neighborhood of $4 billion to $5 billion next year, if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax extensions are not passed.

This would place 2011-2012 funding at the same level it was in 1999-2000, more than 10 years ago. But, as SSC noted, expenses have not been stagnant in the past decade. “The cost of providing educational and support services has gone up significantly over the last ten years to keep up with the consumer prices,” stated the SSC report.

Consider these SSC statistics: The average teacher salary for 2000-01 was $52,363. For 2009-2010, it was $67,571. The average health/welfare contribution for 2000-2001 was $5,486. For 2009-10, it was $9,844. The total average compensation for 2000-2001 was $57,849. For 2009-2010, it was $77,415.

This $20,000 difference represents a 34 percent increase in salaries and benefits. SSC pointed out that school districts are also paying higher costs for facilities, instructional materials, equipment and supplies, utilities, rents and other expenses.

If education funding were to revert back to 1999-2000 levels, districts would be expected to provide increasingly demanding instructional programs with costs at 2011-2012 levels — what SSC called “an untenable expectation.”

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at



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