Fight over Klamath-Trinity school spending comes to a head this week

Parent: 'We have less and less of a say where our money goes'

Erika Tracy, executive director of the Hoopa Tribal Education Association, addresses the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District board at a February meeting. (Natalya Estrada — contributed)
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A public meeting on Wednesday will bring together Hoopa Valley residents and civil attorneys who say the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District has repeatedly failed to be transparent while developing a plan to spend money set aside for its high-needs students.

In the ongoing dispute between the school district and attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the state Department of Education has sided mostly with the ACLU’s complaints that the district failed to follow proper guidelines in planning its strategy for students who need additional help with their education.

Paula Lynn Abarr, who has had foster children and grandchildren in the Klamath-Trinity district for nearly five decades, says she’s no longer surprised by the district and school board’s decision-making.

“It’s worse now than it ever has been,” she said. “They don’t value community input and are often offended by it.”

In February, the district’s school board unanimously approved a revision of its 2018-19 plan amid state findings that previous versions of the plan were flawed. In response to the school board decision, ACLU attorneys have authored a letter to the state saying the new plan “does not address the vast majorities of legal deficiencies” that the district had been mandated to fix.

“It’s troubling that in their latest ‘revision process,’ the district did not do any engagement with stakeholders,” said Tedde Simon, an investigator with ACLU Northern California.

High needs in Hoopa Valley

What’s at stake in a revolving door of claims, approvals, appeals and revisions is the district’s relatively high population of students who come from low-income families, live in foster homes or are learning English as a second language.

“The schools have a high tribal population,” said Erika Tracy, executive director of the Hoopa Tribal Education Association. “It’s always a push to find ways of empowering children to be proud of who they are. They need a curriculum they can relate to and identify with.”

Students with unique cultural backgrounds need educators who understand their story, Tracy said. When it comes to behavior issues in students, she said, there’s almost always something deeper to the story.

For high-needs students, the district receives funding from the state in order to build special programs. In exchange for receiving more flexibility with spending, the district is held to a high standard of transparency in its planning.

Parents and community members must also be given a chance to provide input for the district’s yearly strategic outlook, called a Local Control and Accountability Plan. Among other things, the plan is supposed to include descriptions of how funds for high-needs students will be directed.

“There’s an obligation lined out in the law that states district should provide opportunities for the community to give input on how the plan should be developed,” Tracy said. “It gets frustrating when decision-makers aren’t kept in the loop.”

Parents speak out

For Hoopa resident Meagen Baldy, the dispute isn’t a matter of legal claims. Baldy has six children, five of whom are still attending schools in the Klamath-Trinity district. Three of her children have individual education plans and one has a speech-language disability, she said.

“I know other kids are in the same boat,” Baldy said. “Looking at the data, it shows that our test scores are far below basic for 90 percent of our school. I’ve become a strong advocate because I know there’s kids out there who possibly don’t have a parent who’s an advocate, or parents who might not know the first step to becoming one.”

The school board’s February decision to unanimously approve the latest plan didn’t surprise her, she said — after all, the district is under pressure to get the funds moving.

But Baldy said her active concern is transparency. She said that every time she has contacted the district to find out more about plan discussions, she hasn’t heard back.

Abarr expressed despair over the state of communication.

“This year, I kind of gave up on the (Klamath-Trinity) schools,” she said. “The whole thing gives me a bad feeling.”

Abarr sits on the Indian Policies and Procedures Task Force, which the district designated as a form of stakeholder engagement to much controversy. But the real scandal, she said, was realizing that the task force’s insight on improving student resources falls on deaf ears.

“We’re finding out we have less and less of a say where our money goes,” she said. Student test scores fall each year they advance through the district’s schools, she added, widening a gap she said is created by teachers who can’t relate to their students.

She accused some district teachers of stumbling around cultural distinctions and imposing white-centric historical narratives onto classrooms full of students who have learned differently at home.

Baldy reflected on her own education, which she said should mirror the standards found everywhere else.

“My father believed that we’d be better off if we didn’t get the reservation education,” Baldy said. “So we grew up in Eureka. When I was out there, it was really hard because I didn’t self-identify with any of the other kids on the coast. There was maybe one other Native American family out there.”

After returning to the reservation and entering the Klamath-Trinity district for the sixth grade, she finally felt at home.

“It’s a huge difference going to school with your cousins and your family,” she said. “So it’s a big thing for me to advocate for my children to have a good education.”

Transparency concerns

One of the major claims leveled against both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 plans, according to the complainants, is that the district displayed a “tremendous” lack of transparency developing the plans and engaging the community before preparing strategies.

In its finding, the state upheld most of ACLU Northern California’s claims about the 2017-18 plan and mandated the district to work with the Humboldt County Office of Education to properly meet the plan’s guidelines for the latest version of the 2018-19 plan.

Complainants have said the district didn’t properly form a parental advisory committee or hold public meetings to consult with stakeholders prior to finalizing either plan.

Members of the Klamath-Trinity school board listen at a meeting where the board unanimously approved the latest version of the district’s 2018-19 LCAP. (Natalya Estrada — Contributed)

Jon Ray, superintendent of the Klamath-Trinity district, said an existing Indian Policies and Procedures Task Force provided an effective parent committee, but attorneys say that a simple designation wasn’t enough.

“The advisory committee must be a totally separate group and specific to the legal requirement that the district has to consult with tribes,” said Linnea Nelson of ACLU Northern California.

Ray, on the other hand, says the district has reached out to stakeholders.

“We tried to bring the very essence of stakeholder engagement to each and every site,” Ray said. He disputed an ACLU Northern California complaint that the plan wasn’t properly advertised on the district website, noting that it’s featured prominently at the bottom of the site’s home page.

“The word ‘prominent,’ to me, is subjective,” he said. “Someone might say, ‘We want big banners and alerts going up and flashy banners.’ I guess that’s a subjective decision.”

The state’s finding over the previous year’s plan was largely a matter of communication, he said.

“I believe we can continue to tighten up the language,” Ray said. “I used lingo that isn’t necessarily layman’s term lingo.”

Latest positions

Klamath-Trinity’s school board may have unanimously approved the latest plan at its February meeting, but the battle over its legitimacy is far from over.

“They made additions to the last couple of pages that didn’t address any concerns,” said the ACLU’s Simon. “And it’s troubling that in the quote-unquote ‘revision process,’ the district did not do any stakeholder engagement.”

Ray said he’s confident the version of the 2018-19 plan approved in February will hold up against state standards. If it doesn’t, the district will have to revise it by April 15.

Communication between the groups has been sparse, both sides say, but the ACLU Northern California’s March 27 public meeting will be the organization’s latest attempt at furthering the conversation.

“At what point are we going to be heard?” Tracy said. “You (the district) have people who want to engage. There are differing opinions and perspectives. The district has made this a status quo operation, as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s make this a meaningful process.’”

If you go:

What: Family and community forum for KTJUSD “transparency and accountability”

When: March 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Where: Hoopa Tribal Wildland Fire Training Facility

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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