Fremont Unified School District grapples with funding shortfall

Fremont Unified School District Superintendent C.J. Cammack speaks about the process of addressing the district's financial situation during a presentation at Washington High School last week. (YouTube screenshot)

FREMONT, Calif. — The Fremont Unified School District finds itself on a precarious financial footing, caught between the demands placed upon it by the federal and state governments and a lack of resources to meet those mandates. C.J. Cammack, superintendent of Fremont Unified School District, says that without additional financial support from the state or federal government, the district must turn to the community for assistance.

Last week, Superintendent Cammack, alongside Associate Superintendent Daniel Hillman, presented an overview of the district’s financial situation at Washington High School. Hillman explained that the district’s general fund expenditures, about $502 million, exceed its revenues, about $482 million, and the district can’t engage in deficit spending much longer.

“We’ve got enough money set aside that we can do exactly what we’re doing right now for a couple more years,” Hillman said. “And we’re going to have to have some conversations and decide what will happen when that time comes.”

For about a decade, California schools have been primarily funded through the local control funding formula, which is aimed at allocating more resources to schools in economically disadvantaged communities in order to make the state's education landscape more equitable.

Each district receives a base amount per student adjusted by grade level and based on how many students attend school every day, also known as the average daily attendance. Additional funds are allocated for each student facing specific challenges, such as being an English language learner or qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, though no student is counted twice if they are, for example, an English language learner and qualify for free lunch. Concentration grants are awarded to districts with over 55% of these types of students.

During the 2023-2024 school year, the base amount for each student in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade was around $10,000, while districts received $12,300 per student in ninth through 12th grade. The supplemental grant per student was between $2,000 and $2,500, depending on the grade level, and between $6,500 and $8,000 per student for the concentration grants.

Based on the fact that about 28% of the 32,600 or so students at Fremont Unified can be considered disadvantaged, the district is allocated nothing in concentration funding, $19.1 million in supplemental funding and $342.7 million in base funding for a total of $361.8 million.

That placed Fremont near the bottom of the districts in Alameda County in terms of how much funding it received per student ($13,339) during the 2021-2022 school year, just above Dublin ($13,192), according to a chart presented by Hillman. Emery Unified ($32,449) and Oakland Unified ($25,436) were at the top of the chart.

The amount the district receives through the local control funding formula isn't likely to increase given the fact that enrollment is continuing to dwindle for reasons outside of the district's control, Cammack said. Specifically, people are having fewer children and moving out of the area, which are problems for districts across the state and region.

"In the Bay Area, almost every district is in declining enrollment except for just a small handful," Cammack said.

Meanwhile costs are spiraling out of control, especially as they relate to pensions and special education.

School districts and teachers are required to pay into the California State Teachers Retirement System, known as CalSTRS, while the district and all other school employees pay into the California Public Employee Retirement System, known as CalPERS. When the school finance system was overhauled in 2014, then Gov. Jerry Brown also signed Assembly Bill 1469 into law, mandating increased contributions from employers, members and the state to CalSTRS in order to address the pension system's funding shortfall.

The state never gave schools the funds to help cover that increased cost, Cammack said. Meanwhile the district's total pension costs have ballooned from $31.65 million during the 2016-2017 school year to $80.04 million during the 2022-2023 school year.

"What could we have done with the $40-plus million that makes up that gap," Cammack said.

Similarly, the federal government passed a special education law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act but has not provided corresponding funding despite promising to cover 40% of special education services. Currently, the federal government contributes a paltry 8% or so toward the district's $95 million program, with a third coming from the state and most being covered by the district.

"It's a broken promise from the federal government," Cammack said.

Absent those issues, Cammack said the district would be in a very different financial position. Without additional funding from the federal or state government, the district must turn to the community and see if voters would be willing to pay higher property taxes to help better fund the district.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.

Photo caption: Fremont Unified School District Superintendent C.J. Cammack speaks about the process of addressing the district's financial situation during a presentation at Washington High School last week. (YouTube screenshot)

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