Based on the questions and concerns raised by trustees at Wednesday’s Fresno Unified School Board meeting, district officials have a lot of work to do on finetuning the proposed 2023-24 budget.
The trustees’ criticisms ranged from a lack of funding proposed for school psychologists to the size of the typeface on an attached spreadsheet of “augmentation proposals,” which included $14.5 million for Superintendent Bob Nelson’s new Literacy Initiative.
Board Clerk Susan Wittrup questioned why the district is proposing using a five-year block grant to fund the Literacy Initiative: “We don’t need literacy coaches anymore after that? I would say … we do need them. So we need to think about this.”
The initiative, which was announced at a workshop last week, will represent a concentrated, communitywide effort to raise the reading abilities of the district’s 70,000 students and fast-tracking interventions so that all students are reading at or above grade level by the first grade.
Educators say that students need to be reading at grade level by the third grade so they will have the literacy skills needed for academic success through the remainder of their school years.
That lack of reading abilities and other necessary skills was cited by Roosevelt High social studies teacher Aimee Bogna, who spoke to the board prior to their closed session Wednesday afternoon.
“I believe we are committing educational malpractice in our district,” Bogna said, referring to the fact that many students arrive in high school without the skills and habits to be successful in high school, such as how to use a planner and meet deadlines.
“Furthermore, across the board, our students are desperately struggling with literacy,” she said. “We’re doing iReady (assessment) testing this week. Here are some statistics: Out of 69 of my ninth and 10th-grade students, 21 are reading at or above grade level, 27 are one grade level below, 21 are two or more grade levels below where they should be reading. Some are reading at a third or fourth-grade level.
“These are ninth and 10th graders. How does this happen? We’re failing our students. This is not OK. We celebrate high graduation rates every year, but what are we graduating?” Bogna said to sustained applause from the audience of district staffers.
Fresno Unified-to-Fresno State Pipeline
Nelson noted later during the public meeting that 2,106 Fresno Unified seniors have been accepted to Fresno State, with an acceptance rate of 95%. They comprise the biggest portion of the university’s incoming freshman class.
Lisa Bell, a spokeswoman for Fresno State, confirmed Friday that Fresno Unified graduates will be the biggest contingent in the upcoming freshman class. “Fresno State received 2,064 applications to be fall 2023 first-time freshmen from FUSD students, a higher number than the two previous years,” she said in an email. “Additionally, the most up-to-date admissions data reveals that 1,952 students at FUSD have been admitted as potential first-time freshmen for fall 2023, an acceptance rate of 94.57% of those who applied.”
At least two members of the Class of 2023 will have their pick of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities, Nelson said: Anna Hun of Duncan Polytechnical High School was accepted to Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and the Fresno State Smittcamp Family Honors College, while Edison High senior Thomas Clark Stewart has been accepted to Yale, Brown, Columbia, and Cornell.
Huge congratulations to Edison Senior, Thomas Stewart, who announced today he chose @Columbia University, out of several Ivy League schools he was accepted to. Keeping making Fresno proud. pic.twitter.com/zmq7bKpNmH
— Andy Levine (@AndyLevine559) April 28, 2023
New Staff, New Programs in Proposed Budget
Trustees later heard a lengthy budget presentation that, since the public meeting didn’t begin until nearly 7 p.m., left them with less time to ask questions and get answers. Trustees noted that they were limiting their comments because there were audience members who had been waiting hours for an opportunity to speak to the board on other matters.
The district is proposing expanding staff, including more campus assistants and regional safety specialists to aid with safety and security, more school nurses to address students’ growing health needs, more music and arts teachers, more staffers to provide “real-time” information to school principals about students’ performance on academic testing so they can implement interventions more quickly, and more custodians, maintenance workers, mechanics, and HVAC specialists to keep schools up and running.
In addition to the $14,520,026 proposed for the Literacy Initiative, the district is proposing spending $9.5 million to improve academic performance for eLearn Academy students, $2 million to increase student engagement at school sites and in the community, and $2.5 million for the “backpacks and books” program to provide take-home books for students, many of whom have no books to read at home.
Although this year’s budget won’t be finalized until after public hearings in June, by comparison last year’s budget totaled $2.02 billion.
About That Proposed Budget
Trustees’ comments during the budget presentation included:
Board president Veva Islas, who attended the meeting remotely, said she agreed with community member Rochelle Martinez-Cantu who said the district needs to devote more resources to meeting the social-emotional needs of Native American students. Islas said she was glad to hear about the plans to expand the number of registered nurses at schools but wondered why the district plans to reintroduce salad bars starting only with the high schools.
Wittrup said she is concerned about budget “gaps” that are leaving some schools without the staffing they need. She noted that Baird and Bullard TALENT, both middle schools with nearly 700 students each, have a school psychologist for only 2.5 days each week. She said principals are being asked if they would prefer to have a full-time guidance learning adviser or school psychologist. “That is an inappropriate question because these are baseline services,” she said. “They don’t do the same thing. Anybody who is asking that doesn’t seem to have a good understanding of what school psychologists do and what a GLA is.”
Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas questioned why the district was proposing creating regional FLATS centers, where parents could drop off and pick up their children’s district-issued computer devices that need repairs. Jonasson Rosas said she appreciates the intention to make the centers more accessible for parents but suggested that allowing parents to drop off and pick up devices at their child’s school would be easier for parents.
Trustees Valerie Davis and Keshia Thomas both said they are glad to see that the district was planning to devote funds to hiring music teachers but wondered if schools would have enough spaces to accommodate them.
Trustee Andy Levine noted that the proposed budget includes funds to buy a dozen 10-passenger vans, which he suggested could be used to provide transportation for students who miss their regular bus. “That’s one main driver of chronic absenteeism that I think we’re missing out on,” he said.
Trustee Claudia Cazares launched stern criticism about the budget presentation itself. She noted that in years past departments would make separate budget presentations over multiple meetings instead of having numerous department proposals unveiled at one meeting. Cazares also questioned why the district would provide in the agenda a 37-page, out-of-focus spreadsheet containing line items and descriptions. “Not only is it very, very hard to read and the font is super-tiny, but there’s cells here in this PDF document that run past the top and the bottom cells. So I don’t even know what it says,” she said, holding up a printout.
The district will learn in May what Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing for next year’s state budget and revise the Fresno Unified budget plan accordingly.