This episode is the first in Santa Cruz Local’s Distance Learning series. Today we explore how the state’s public education system is organized and funded, and how decisions are made. Many of you wanted to know: How can students, parents and teachers make their voice heard in such a huge, complicated system? We hear from former county superintendent Michael Watkins and state Sen. John Laird on the governor’s school reopening plan and how to get involved. Transcript below.

Santa Cruz Local’s Distance Learning Series

Our podcast series focuses on distance learning and the state of public education in Santa Cruz County. We focus on the themes we hear from you. Read the transcript or listen to the episodes.

We want to hear about your priorities and concerns with public education in Santa Cruz County. Take Santa Cruz Local’s three-minute survey. Your feedback informs this series.


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Kara Meyberg Guzman: I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman

This is Santa Cruz Local. 

Last year, Santa Cruz Local interviewed hundreds of Santa Cruz County residents. We went to farmers markets, neighborhood groups, food pantries, clubs, houses of worship and other places. We asked everyone we met: What do you want from your elected leaders?

So many of you said you want our leaders to address education during the time of COVID.

Distance learning during COVID-19 has upended families’ lives. We heard about the strain of juggling school, family and work. Anxiety about failing grades. Uncertainty about when students could return. And concern about whether classrooms would be safe.

Some parents also are worried about state funding for their kids’ schools.

Today’s episode is the first in a series about distance learning and the state of public education in Santa Cruz County. We’ll not only look at the problems, but also shine a light on what’s working. 

Today we’ll look at how decisions are made in our state’s kindergarten through 12th grade public schools. We’ll learn why school board trustees have more power than they used to. And we’ll hear from our new state senator on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for education. 

Many of you wanted to know: How can students, parents and teachers make their voice heard in such a huge, complicated system? 

Our first guest is Michael Watkins. He was the superintendent of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education for 12 years. He retired in 2019. He’s the past president of the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators.

He started as a teacher in Oakland. He taught in a juvenile hall and later, in special education. 

I thought Michael would be a good guest to kick off this series because as superintendent, Michael had a birds-eye view of our state’s educational system and school budgets in Santa Cruz County. And also I thought he could speak pretty candidly now that he’s retired.

I asked him to start by explaining the role of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.

MICHAEL WATKINS: First of all, let me back up. There are 58 counties in California. Out of the 58 counties, 53 [have] elected county superintendents and the other five are appointed. 

Our role primarily is to govern the educational system within that county. You know, even though we have other cross-county jurisdictions in some areas, it really is to support the K-12 population in that county, and support — in Santa Cruz County, for example, those 10 local school districts. We don’t want to usurp their authority, even though in some cases, I guess we could. But that hasn’t been the case in Santa Cruz County. They’re all pretty much independent. 

We also provide a number of direct services: career technical education, special education, outdoor education, science, you know, the gamut, really those ancillary services that support families and children. We also support those at-risk students in juvenile halls, and in court and community schools, those types of things. But really, we are a support system for the entire community. 

KMG: Does the County Office of Ed have any power, I guess, over the private schools in our county?

MICHAEL WATKINS: No, the state has that authority over the private schools. At one point in time we did. We had to approve their private school affidavit, but now it’s directly with the state. 

And there’s very little oversight on private schools. So, but no, the county office doesn’t have a role in that at this point in time.

KMG: Can you help explain what sorts of decisions are made at the county office of education level versus the school district level?

MICHAEL WATKINS: We’ll stay with Santa Cruz County. There are 10 local districts, and each has their own different school board, OK? And we have our own school board. So each of the entities are unique. Our role is primarily supportive, you know. Primarily. However, if things go sideways financially, or even academically sometimes in districts, the county office may involve themselves. It’s been years since we’ve had to do that. And Pajaro Valley was the last of my recollection, although some were on the cusp, financially, where we come in and take control of their budget and take control of their decision making process. But then it hasn’t had to happen for a while. 

Will it happen, you know, moving forward, I don’t know, Kara. I know that with COVID, there has been a lot of decline in enrollment. You know, it’s distance learning, and some schools are struggling financially because of that. Also, the pension costs for teacher salaries has risen. But also the burden’s been placed on local school districts. So given that context, I guess the potential down the road for some schools to have difficult budgetary constraints is ever present.

KMG: Let’s pause for a second here. 

Overall, about $99 billion dollars go into California’s Kindergarten through 12th grade public schools this school year. About half of that money comes from the state. About 30 percent comes from local funding, and the rest from federal sources.

That balance might change a bit, with next school year’s budget and a new president.

I asked Michael to help explain how our state’s public school system is organized, from the state superintendent down to the county office of education level. 

MICHAEL WATKINS: Well, it starts with the state legislature and the governor. I mean, that’s, that is the nuts and bolts of it. They create the state budget, which allocates the dollars to public education. So that is the beginning, OK. 

The governor has a significant power in determining how much money goes to public education. So if you have a governor who’s pro education, you’re likely to get more additional revenue. 

What happened about five years ago, under Gov. Brown you know, they instituted local control. So basically, the state would give you this X number of dollars based on the formula or with the legislature, and that local board would determine how it’s spent. 

You know, and that’s a whole new, you know, philosophy, the last five years. Pros and cons from my standpoint, I really wasn’t in favor of it back then. Not sure I’m in favor of it now. But I don’t want the state involvement either. I mean, you know, so you have to balance the two. 

But because of the lack of state funding for public education in California, I think it’s about $10,000 per student. Now, maybe at the most 11 (thousand). You have some states where it’s high as $25,000, $22,000. And the average is around $14,000. So you find these superintendents just trying to balance a budget, you know, with a narrow margin for error. But it starts up there. 

But each, you know, when we talked earlier — because of local control. And when I left office, I did say this, I think one of the most important positions in a county or a city is that of the school board trustee, because they now can determine how those dollars are spent, and the priorities in how the kids in their district get educated. So I’ve encouraged other potential trustees to run for office — the ones who have common sense, essentially — but it is a local control. And I think that the buck stops with the trustees and the superintendent, period.

KMG: Quick note. Per-pupil funding is complicated to compare across states. California’s education spending ranks either near the average, or among the lowest in the nation, depending on how funding is calculated. 

Read more:

Michael told me he was against the Local Control Funding Formula because it put all the things he really cared about in the same bucket. Things like career technical education, support for new teachers, science and environmental education. With the Local Control Funding Formula, school district boards could decide on their funding. Before, they were what’s called categorical programs. They had guaranteed funding set aside.

Now, districts get money based generally on enrollment, attendance and numbers of kids who are considered high need. Those are kids who are English language learners, in foster care or from low-income families. 

Advocates of local control say that the formula is more responsive to those high-needs students.

I asked Michael for his perspective on how school funding has changed in Santa Cruz County since the Local Control Funding Formula was enacted in 2013.

MICHAEL WATKINS: You know, I think the budgets were so threadbare that any new initiative was probably stalled to some degree. You know, as I mentioned earlier, with the pension funds, teacher salary raises, these types of things, a district has to be very creative on how they prioritize and look at certain things. 

I think technology has played a big role in many of the school districts. I think the sciences as well, I know that there has been a science initiative, the math initiative county wide. So I think that there are many things that are coming together, but they’re coming together more collectively. 

You know, I think that for a district to say, OK I can operate these things in isolation, or as my own school district, I think is, is a real problem. And some superintendents, you know, and I wouldn’t say locally, but maybe locally, don’t reach out to one another, or don’t reach out to the county office, or don’t reach out to the state to really try to leverage all of the possibilities. And I think that’s one thing that with local control, hey, it’s it’s my baby, I’m local now. But it shouldn’t be that way. It should be really more of a collective in my opinion.

KMG: We’ve heard from so many parents, that they’re worried about their school district’s funding and declines in funding due to low enrollment. What can parents do to act on that? How do you advocate for your school district that has lower funding now due to lower enrollment? 

MICHAEL WATKINS: Well, I’ll just go back to myself as a county superintendent. And I think I’ve always tried to leverage many of the nonprofits and local organizations to provide, let’s say, counseling, to provide writing projects or to provide, you know, the science projects, I look at university. 

So as I build these relationships with this network locally, it releases funding in my base budget, for other things. So I think that partnerships are critical, where you have an organization that can provide counseling and get reimbursed from the state or the feds for providing counseling in schools, you get them, you use them. And those counseling dollars that you put in, you save them for something else.

And No. 2, what I was always very aggressive in going out after, you know, grants. I mean, so those are two ways that I was able to use county office funding more successfully, by leveraging, again, leveraging partnerships, and being very aggressive going after grants. 

As a parent, I think they need to really No. 1, understand who’s on their school board, you know, and what’s their school board’s, what’s their trustees’ priorities? The buck stops with the superintendent and the trustees. And I think that they can help do some fundraising along the way with that process. 

I know that that’s when the more the disparities that we see sometimes — even in this county, there were some schools that could raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, and that helped that school, but not everyone could do that. So you see that disproportionate thing grow. 

So, but those are ways that I’ve been able to successfully — but also I would try to look at ways to recapture students by offering creativity around programming. It could be you know, do you provide schools in the community? Do you have tons of after-school program, weekend programs? These types of things that will attract parents.

You know, it’s a competition in my opinion, even though we have these district boundary lines. I think a school superintendent must think like an entrepreneur, in my opinion. You know, and sort of stay ahead of the curve and like, what can I do to attract students? What can I offer? Which programs? It could be the arts, it could be music, it could be hands-on science, whatever else it may be. I think we’re in a competitive arena. And I would try to provide the best alternatives for students at this point in time.

KMG: When you say a superintendent has to try to attract students, you mean, like attract them back to the classroom because so many have gone away? Or, like, attract students into your school district away from private schools because so much of the funding is based on enrollment?

MICHAEL WATKINS: All the above. And even I would even — I would attract from other school districts, even when it’s difficult because of the boundaries, and do they release you on interdistrict transfer, all this other stuff. 

We know that those low socioeconomic students are going to be a year, can be as much as a year behind, OK? So if you’re a district and not taking that into account, and you are a district that takes it into account, as a parent, you’re going to want to put your child in that district that takes into account your child lost a year of education. And this district is covering it up by doing this, this and this and this. 

So, yeah, I think we’re in that era, you know, and I’d break down the boundaries. You know, it’s, you know, if I possibly could, but I can’t. But anyway. But I think that the more pressure that is on a district that doesn’t provide these services that we talked about, they’ll step up as well.

KMG: As of the last week in January, Santa Cruz County, like much of the state, was in the state’s purple tier for economic reopening. The counties in the purple tier have the highest level of risk, so not much is open.

COVID case rates help guide school reopening. As of the last week of January, our county had 47 new COVID cases per day per 100,000 people. That’s a big improvement. Two weeks ago, our county’s case rate was 71. 

But the county needs to get down to about four to seven new cases per day for several weeks to enter the red tier. Counties have to be in the red tier to reopen seventh through 12th grade classrooms.

Our county health officer Dr. Gail Newel said on Thursday that she predicts we could get to the red tier by late spring or summer. So, she said it’s unlikely that those classrooms could reopen this school year.

For transitional kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms, it’s not as strict. They can reopen while the county is in the purple tier. Schools can apply for waivers. It’s up to the county health officer and the state. But our county’s case rate is not yet low enough for schools to apply.

I asked Michael Watkins for his advice for students, parents and teachers who have concerns about the governor’s plan to reopen schools. How can Santa Cruz County residents influence these big decisions?

MICHAEL WATKINS: So let’s say we’re in the red tier. I think when we go back to the school board trustees, the superintendent, and your health services director over here, those are the key people that we need to be in touch with and lobby. I think if you are a district and you can demonstrate that you are able to let’s say, stagger a school day, have outdoor education for 100 kids in the morning, 100 kids in the afternoon, whatever it may be. And, you know, the teachers are safely you know — the protocols and so forth. I think the green light would be, you know, to give the go ahead to open, I think school boards have, you know, a major influence on that.

But I also mention that, you know, I don’t think I’m misspeaking here, that teachers are really — you know, I was disappointed that, you know, that teachers weren’t prioritized for the vaccinations. I really feel if we really value public education — I know that many teachers are concerned about going back, especially at the high school level, there may be asymptomatic students. The unions aren’t really down with going back to school until, you know, everybody’s tested, and you know, they’re vaccinated. So that’s going to be another challenge. 

And maybe there can be some pressure put upon the governor to really take a look at, if they really want to value public education, vaccinate the teachers first. So, there’s even though there are some compounding issues, beyond just the, you know, the personal equipment, the sanitation, the spacing, the outdoor — it is really about, you know, I would say the vaccinations play a key role. A lot of teachers are concerned.

And I know, we’ve had some teachers, you know, and in other states that I’m aware of, there have been teacher deaths from COVID-19 when they reopened schools rather quickly. So those are all factors that are going to play into it.

KMG: Thank you Michael. Is there anything else you’d want people to know about how decisions are made and how to get involved in public education right now?

MICHAEL WATKINS: Well, right now it’s a hard time with COVID. But I would, I would stay in the Zoom meetings. I would, you know, the Zoom meetings are open to the public. You need to educate yourself on that. And they always have open session. In other words, public input. So even if you’re not a school board trustee, you’re a parent and you want to give input into some decisions around opening a school or closing a school or whatever it may be. I think there is an opportunity for you to do that at every board meeting. And I would take advantage of that. 

If you’re silent, you know, you’re not going to get your needs met. You have to be an advocate for your child, or your grandchild, or your students in your community. So I would say get involved and know the process on that.


KMG: While your school board and superintendent decide how money is spent, how much money comes from the state is up to the governor and the state legislature. The governor also sets the state’s plan to reopen schools.

Let’s hear from state Sen. John Laird. He represents the 17th district. That includes all of Santa Cruz County, San Luis Obispo County, and parts of Santa Clara and Monterey counties.

He’s a Democrat. He lives in Santa Cruz. He took office last month. He’s a former state secretary of natural resources, state assembly member and mayor of Santa Cruz.

John now serves as chairman of the state senate’s budget subcommittee on education. It’s a powerful role. One half of the state’s budget goes to public education. All state funding for K-12, community colleges and state universities goes through that subcommittee.

On Monday, that subcommittee will have the first of 10 meetings to consider the state’s education budget. 

JOHN LAIRD: Let’s talk about the reopening issue for a second. The governor has proposed a school reopening plan that has some problems. And what we are trying to do is work with him to resolve the problems and get to a place that we have a clear roadmap for reopening schools. 

KMG: The governor proposed $6.6 billion in one-time money to reopen schools. Two million would be for grants for districts that offer in-person teaching. Basically it’s an incentive to re-open. It comes with a lot of COVID testing and safety requirements. John said the way it’s set up, those grants would probably mainly pay for the required testing.

The governor also called for $4.6 billion for summer school and other help for kids whose families have low incomes, are English language learners, or are in foster care or homeless.

The governor proposed that the first round of applications open in February. John told me that timeline is just too early.

JOHN LAIRD: And there are many questions inherent in how he has proposed the reopening. He has said that schools can reopen in heavily purple-tiered counties, which has caused concern among both parents, and among teachers and staff members. 

And he is requiring (COVID) testing. And it’s not flexible in the first proposal, it would be required that schools have to do it. And schools have big concerns because Proposition 98 money is supposed to go for instruction, not public health. And they believe that the state — through funds that come in from the federal government — for the pandemic should provide other funding sources for testing. 

KMG: Prop. 98 was passed by state voters in the 1980s. It guarantees a minimum level of funding for public schools. Prop 98 funding comes from the state’s General Fund and local property taxes.

JOHN LAIRD: And it [the governor’s plan to reopen schools] also requires this testing protocol. And there’s some schools that have opened a hybrid manner, and have their own testing system in place. And we have proposed to the governor, that is to have a testing system that’s working, just allow the local public health department to sign off on it, don’t reinvent the wheel. 

And there has been $6.7 billion of federal money that is coming in for the pandemic relief that was signed just before the last administration left. And that $6.7 billion was not factored in to (the) governor’s budget. The governor says they’re complementary. But the legislature thinks you should take a look and see if there’s certain things you don’t need to spend because of that, or there’s better ways to use the state money because of what’s coming in for the federal money. And that thus far is not included in the governor’s plan. 

Teachers associations and some public employers associations have expressed concern about going back to work until teachers can be vaccinated. And right now, that’s not synced up in the right order. And the governor made a comment this week that he was very upset about that, because schools would never go back if we had to wait for teachers to be vaccinated. And that is a real stumbling block in the negotiations.

And so, there are many things that need to be worked out. And we have privately countered to the governor with different ways that we should resolve those issues. And we’re waiting to see if he changes his proposal. 

And for parents, this is very difficult, because everybody knows that distance learning is inferior to in-person learning. And there are certain groups that have fallen through the cracks — whether it’s foster kids, kids with special needs, homeless kids, some English language learners that struggle — and they are just losing time educationally while schools are closed. 

So we all want to reopen them. We want to do it safely. And that’s where the debate is right now is how soon can it be safe, and what does safe mean? And when you do reopen and you might still have hybrid, which is certain days would still be distance, but certain days would be in person. And some schools might have to have cohorts of students that stay separate and work through the day together. There is distance required in the classroom that might change what you need. 

There’s not a big pool of substitute teachers available in the pandemic. And so if people inevitably get infected or sick, that are teachers — it’s not clear that there’s people behind them to come in and be substitutes in the event that does happen. 

And there’s a big debate ranging, because even under the governor’s very accelerated plan, schools would only open for roughly six to eight weeks of the remaining school year. And a lot of people are questioning why would you go back for just that period of time. And then the other side, people are saying the socialization for kids is so lost during this pandemic, that even six or eight weeks of socialization with their friends and fellow students would be a big boost to kids and a boost to education. 

So I think that we really need to tie this down. We really need to negotiate in a way that we can make the money go the right places, the process be more flexible, and more based on what is going on with the pandemic rather than a timeframe that doesn’t respect the pandemic, and just put a process in place and give direction to the districts, and then let them work on it against what those rules are and what the money available is.

KMG: I asked John, what’s his advice for people who want to voice their needs and opinions on the governor’s plan to reopen schools and state funding for education.

He said the big thing is to write. His email is [email protected]

Also, he told me, attend the senate budget subcommittee on education meetings. Monday’s meeting is an overview. The nine following meetings over the next month or so will be deeper and more detailed. That’s the time to weigh in, he said. 

JOHN LAIRD: The significant thing is, that’s probably hard for everybody to hear that’s involved in this is — it’s moving and changing really rapidly. The governor is partially reopening, the cases are still leaving places in the purple tier, the federal government is changing its support, the vaccine is either out there or isn’t. And a lot of these things are moving pieces that mean that the situation is changing. 

And so I think what is important for people that are concerned about this to do is talk about the top lines that are important to them, regardless of how these factors are changing, which is if you want kids back to school, and you want them back only if it’s safe, that’s what you say. And then you know that if money changes, or the pandemic changes, or the vaccine changes, that doesn’t, that that thing — if that’s what people are advocating for — is still clear through all those changes. 

And that is a way to think about it is, what’s important to everybody that wants to weigh in. And they should weigh in on what’s important. Because if they weigh in about a specific funding, or about a specific date, or about a specific level on the pandemic, that could change before the email is read. You know, and so it’s important to just highlight that real top-level concerns so that you can get a real flavor about it. 


KMG: In the show notes, we’ll post details on how to participate in Monday’s meeting.

Look for our next episode in this series on distance learning and the state of education in Santa Cruz County. 

What are your questions on distance learning and the state of education in Santa Cruz County? 

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Thanks to Trimpot for the music.

I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.

Thanks for listening to Santa Cruz Local.

Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.