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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

The tubas used by music students in San Clemente High School’s marching band are 20 to 25 years old, according to music teacher Tony Soto.

The musical education department at San Clemente High does aim to purchase new instruments for students to use, but it has to rely on fundraisers and donations to do so. Recent federal relief funding the Capistrano Unified School District received as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, partly went to purchasing much-needed new instruments.

“Whenever we have our booster meetings—because we have to raise our own funds—one of the mantras we’ve got accustomed to saying is the school district pays for pretty much two things: my salary and the lights to be on,” Soto said. “Everything else in terms of instruments, uniforms, coaches, we have to do the fundraising for that.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school’s music department held about four big fundraisers a year. Now, that number is down to just two because of less participation from parents—though it’s hoped the frequency of regular fundraisers will shoot back up in the near future.

“We’re doing things like selling candy,” Soto said. “We’re fortunate enough to host marching band competitions for the past couple of years, which brings in a nice chunk of money. Without that, we would be at a loss.”

San Clemente High’s music program generally needs about $80,000 to $90,000 to operate in a normal school year to fund coaches, trips, and replenishing old instruments. Soto and other musical instructors typically handle instrument maintenance themselves.

“At the beginning of the school year, we ask parents to help out in terms of giving a donation,” Soto said. “The way we would use (more funding), No. 1 would probably be to replenish our instruments and maybe upkeep the repairs. A lot of people don’t know a tuba, for instance, can cost anywhere from $400 to $600 a year to keep up with its maintenance.”

Those struggles are reflective of challenges CUSD faces as a whole with what is perceived to be a lack of enough funding. CUSD spokesperson Ryan Burris said underfunding is an issue that district officials have discussed with the community for almost a decade after a state formula was introduced in 2013 called the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, for short.

The funding shortfall impacts the district’s facility needs, because school campuses and buildings are continuing to age and continually cost more to upgrade as years go by—a need the for which the state provides little funding, Burris said. The district has attempted to place bonds on election ballots over the years in an attempt to secure funding for facility upgrades, but the bond measures were not approved by enough voters.

CUSD is currently considering whether to seek another bond measure for Dana Hills High School. CUSD officials recently heard the results of a public opinion survey on the matter, saying they have a “hill to climb” in terms of securing enough voter support.

The state provides the majority of funding for school districts in California. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a base amount of funding is provided based on a district’s average daily attendance, with extra funding then provided for high-need students such as the economically disadvantaged, English learners, or foster youth.

CUSD receives less funding than neighboring school districts—such as the Santa Ana Unified School District—because CUSD has fewer disadvantaged students, Burris said.

A look at data available on ed-data.org, which tracks financial and other statistics for school districts, shows CUSD has received less money per student than Santa Ana Unified. In terms of total funding dollars per student (which includes revenue from the federal government and other sources, in addition to state funding), in the 2020-21 school year, CUSD received $12,701 and Santa Ana Unified received $17,252. In the 2019-20 school year, CUSD received $11,654 and Santa Ana Unified received $15,353. As for the 2018-19 school year, CUSD received $11,447 and Santa Ana Unified $15,003.

As a result, CUSD officials and staff are engaging in a campaign called “Raise the Base” intended to raise awareness of the underfunding problem and advocating for the state to raise base grant funding for all school districts in California. Raising base funding would not raise taxes.

The CUSD Board of Trustees recently approved a resolution brought forth at an April 20 meeting that directs Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte to communicate the Raise the Base message to the public—and encouraging parent and community support for California Assembly Bill 1614, which also supports more educational base funding.

AB 1614, introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), was introduced in January of this year and intends to increase base grants from the state “in order to achieve specified educational goals,” according to the bill’s language. The legislation was last re-referred to an educational committee on April 19, but otherwise it has not significantly moved forward.

Additional money could allow CUSD to reduce class size, keep physical education teachers in elementary school, and expand the number of counselors and general social and emotional support services available for students, Burris said.

More educational funding could also help out with San Clemente High’s musical coaching for various programs, Soto said.

“We not only do band, but we do orchestra. We have jazz band. We also have color guard. We have drum line,” Soto said. “We have all of these specialty programs, which would need specialty coaches that would come in. We’ve been fortunate enough to have one string coach and one percussion coach throughout the year, but typically, with other competitive high school programs, on their staff, there’s usually about six to seven people coming in on a weekly basis.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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