EL CERRITO -- About 100 parents, teachers and West Contra Costa district staff had a chance to weigh in Jan. 15 on their spending priorities should a promised windfall from a new state schools funding formula materialize over the next eight years.

The session at El Cerrito High School was the first of six sponsored by West Contra Costa schools at locations across the district through Feb. 6.

The sessions are designed to gather information for an accountability plan to satisfy the state Legislature that extra money earmarked for students from low-income families, students who are learning English and foster children will be spent effectively.

About 72 percent of West Contra Costa district students qualify as low income, meaning the district will receive supplemental grants that provide 20 percent more funding per pupil on top of base grants that all districts receive, Superintendent Bruce Harter told the gathering.

West Contra Costa will also be eligible for so-called concentration grants aimed at districts with 55 percent or more "high need" students.

The concentration grants must be spent to benefit low income, English learner and foster youth students exclusively.

"The state is putting more resources behind kids who need it more," Harter said.

West Contra Costa has $29 million less to spend this year than in the 2007-08 school year, but the district is projecting $109 million more in income by 2021-22 when the funding formula is phased in completely.

Despite budget cuts over the past six years, the district is making progress toward some of the state's long-term goals, Harter said.

The funding formula requires districts to reduce average class sizes in kindergarten through the third grade to 24 by 2020.

West Contra Costa has reduced K-3 class sizes to 26 students this school year and will further reduce K-3 classes to 24, meeting the state standard, beginning in the fall, Harter said.

Harter said the district plans to distill the information from the six meetings to help write the Local Control Accountability Plan that the state is requiring from districts to receive the extra money, and he invited audience members to suggest ways the increased funding could be spent effectively.

The group, which included a healthy component of teachers, threw out dozens of ideas, including reducing class sizes at the secondary level, implementing a full-day kindergarten, beefing up preschool programs to help children be better prepared for kindergarten, finding alternatives to suspending students at middle and high schools and providing more coaching in writing for secondary English classes.

Other suggestions included providing more English language coaching for students learning English, offering more access to computers and technology, hiring additional counselors, providing more performing arts opportunities, and more career coaching and help with college applications.

El Cerrito High English teacher Liz Sanders said she and other faculty members are particularly interested in improving teacher salaries and lowering class sizes in the district with the increased funding.

"I would like to see smaller classes and attracting and retaining good teachers be a priority," said Sanders, an El Cerrito High graduate in her first year of teaching,

The district plans to adopt the accountability plan at the same June 25 meeting when trustees are scheduled to give their final approval to the 2014-15 budget.

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