Spotlight Schools Newsletter March 29, 2024

⛈️ Stormy Budget Season for School Districts // 🍊 Orange Unified Voters Recall Two Trustees // 😂 Student Improv Team mixes Laughter & Learning // ⚾️ Dodgers Star Gives Back to O.C. High School

Spotlight Schools Newsletter March 29, 2024
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck / Unsplash

The skies are expected to be stormy in Southern California this weekend, matching the financial forecast for many California school districts as they budget for next school year and beyond. "The 2024–25 state budget process promises to be the most contentious and confusing in years," according to the California School Boards Association.

In this month's newsletter, I attempt to drill down into what's causing some of the challenges that could lead to layoffs and program cuts for some Orange County schools. We want to hear from you! Respond to this email or shoot us a message at with your questions and comments

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Yours in knowledge,

Jeannette Andruss, Co-founder and Chief Editorial Officer

What You Need to Know About Budget Challenges for O.C. School Districts

School districts across Orange County will likely have less funding coming in than they expected to run their schools in the next couple of years.

At many March school board meetings, district staffers detailed interim budgets that forecast some potentially tough financial times ahead.

For instance, the Anaheim Union High School District issued layoff notices to more than 100 teachers citing declining enrollment, as reported by Voice of OC.

Why The Budget Crunch Now?

School districts are required to prepare budgets that demonstrate at least 3% of a district’s total General Fund Expenditures remain in reserves for the current year and two subsequent years.

Accordingly, districts may need to take precautionary measures now when submitting their future financial plans.

Complicating the budgeting process this year is the fact that local districts are being hit with multiple fiscal challenges at once.

These include an expiration of Covid-era funding, declining student enrollment, increasing absenteeism, and perhaps most impactful, a California budget with a deficit projected to be between $38 billion and $73 billion.

“Most of the time, budget assumptions can be predictable, but when the state's projection shows a wide loss of revenue gap for the upcoming fiscal year, the next two budget years will be equally complicated due to a number of factors,” Rick Champion, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services for the Brea Olinda Unified School District said in an article on the BOUSD website. “That makes our work at the district level more difficult,” he added.

COLA Complications

Part of the difficulty with budgeting right now has to do with something the state calls the cost-of-living adjustment or COLA. No, it’s not soda pop. It’s an element of state funding, calculated annually to cover the current rate of inflation. For many school districts, the COLA translates into millions of dollars a year.

The challenge for districts is to craft their budgets based on the state's predictions for the COLA which can fluctuate.

For example, the COLA in the 2023-24 budget that took effect July 1, 2023 was 8.2%, as outlined in EdSource. And some school districts were initially planning for a 3.9% COLA for the 2024-25 school year.

But due to lower than expected tax revenue, Governor Gavin Newsom’s January budget plan has the COLA for the 2024-25 school year at just .76%. The Legislative Analyst’s Office is recommending “zeroing out the COLA for the upcoming year,” which would translate to an even bigger drop in funding.

The COLA reduction amounts to a projected $7 million budget shortfall for the Los Alamitos Unified School District over the next three years, according to the district.

“It’s a difficult narrative because the governor is touting that he's not cutting education, because COLA is .76 [percent]. So that's an increase from this year's funding to next year,” Los Alamitos USD Superintendent Andrew Pulver, Ed.D., said during the March 12 board meeting.

“However, we're forced to use their scenarios, so every budget prior, we were told it was almost a 4% [increase in COLA],” he continued.

Dr. Pulver explained that because of the roughly 3% drop in what was expected for COLA revenue, “you're seeing districts across the state that are having to either do layoffs this year or next.”

He said there would be no teacher layoffs for Los Alamitos USD next school year, but other reductions are being planned.

Read more about the Los Alamitos USD’s budget plan at

Thinking Big Picture

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when thinking about a school district's budgeting process.

First, districts go through budget planning annually and things can change, especially when it comes to pink slips for staff. “These notices can be stressful for school employees, but it’s important to remember this is not a final decision,” Ian Hanigan, Chief Communications Officer with the Orange County Department of Education told the O.C. Register

“Once districts know more about the state budget, many educators and staff who received notices in March will find out that they still have their jobs,” said Hanigan.

Second, there is still time for the legislature and Gov. Newsom to find ways to shrink the deficit. Local school districts will also use this time to explore options.

Lastly, communities should stay engaged and be aware of the following upcoming dates:

MAY: Governor Newsom will release a revised budget.

JUNE: Local school districts will hold public hearings on their budget where the community can give input. The state’s budget must be passed by June 15. Local school districts must pass their budget by June 30.

✏️ Have an opinion or comment? Respond to this email with your thoughts!

Madison Miner and Rick Ledesma Removed as Trustees on the Orange Unified School District Board of Education

Final March 5 Election results show voters recalled Madison Miner and Rick Ledesma as trustees on the Orange Unified School District Board of Education.

An effort to recall two conservative members of the Orange Unified School District Board of Education has officially succeeded. 

A majority of voters in the OUSD supported removing trustees Madison Miner and Rick Ledesma in the March 5 Presidential Primary, according to final election results released by the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Miner first gained her seat to represent Trustee Area 4 by narrowly defeating a longtime incumbent in the November 2022 election. Ledesma had represented Trustee Area 7 for more than ten years. The Orange Unified website now lists their seats as vacant.

Parents and teachers launched the recall campaign shortly after the newly elected board majority voted 4-3 to fire then-Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen in January 2023. 

Miner and Ledesma were part of a conservative majority that campaigned on promoting parents’ rights and supporting charter schools.

In office, they passed a parental notification policy outlining what must happen when an OUSD student requests to be treated as a gender "other than the student’s biological sex or gender listed on the student's birth certificate or any other official records.” They also approved plans for a charter school to mortgage a portion of an old OUSD campus.

The recall of Miner and Ledesma temporarily shifts the balance of power on what is usually a seven-member board. Now, the former minority bloc represented by Kris Erickson, Ana Page, and Andrea Yamasaki, outnumbers the remaining conservatives, Angie Rumsey and John Ortega.

The smaller board is expected to decide how to fill the two empty seats at an upcoming meeting. According to OUSD policy, the board must order an election or make a provisional appointment within 60 days of a vacancy.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the OUSD Board of Education is April 11.

Read more from Voice of OC // The O.C. Register // L.A. Times

Los Alamitos High School's Improv Team mixes Laughter and Learning

Los Alamitos Unified School District teachers and administrators take part in the first-ever districtwide staff Improv Show put on by Los Al Live, Los Alamitos High School's award-winning improv team. Video by Jeannette Andruss.

A grown man successfully doing the splits was not what I expected to see at the Los Alamitos Unified School District's first-ever districtwide staff Improv Show. 

Oak Middle School teacher Robert Freedman-Finch’s impressive landing of the move was one of the many hilarious highlights from the March 13 event that raised $3,500 for the Los Alamitos High School Drama program.

Spontaneous fun tends to erupt on stage when Los Al Live, Los Alamitos High School’s student improv team, puts on a show. The team made up of LAHS students has been around for a while, according to math teacher David Barker, the team’s advisor for the last 15 years. They are among the best in the state.

“Last year we won the California State Championship for improv at the California State Thespian Festival,” Barker shared, noting it's the third time Los Al Live has earned the title.

In addition to earning its players accolades, Barker believes that improv can improve students' lives.

“I've had several parents who have come and told me that improv has been what got their kid through school," Barker said, stating that some of the students were really shy, or were depressed or dealing with other challenges.

Evan Pagan, a 10th grader and member of Los Al Live, agreed.

In a recent Zoom interview, Evan shared that improv has helped him with anxiety. “Improvisation requires you to not be anxious. As soon as you're calm, things go well,” he said. 

Hear from other LAHS students about how improv has impacted their lives at

Los Al Live's next improv shows will be held April 12 at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at the Black Box Theater at Los Alamitos High School.

Meet Orange County's Top Speller

Westminster School District 7th grader Katelyn Nguyen won the 2024 Orange County Spelling Bee and will compete in the National Spelling Bee in May. Photo courtesy of OCDE.

Katelyn Nguyen is the best in Orange County when it comes to spelling. The seventh grader recently won the 2024 Orange County Spelling Bee

She was left a bit spell shocked by the experience.

“I still can't really believe it,” a wide-eyed Katelyn said during a Zoom interview, days after the competition. “I just went into the spelling bee hoping to get second or third place.”

Instead, the 13-year-old student at Helen Stacey Middle School in Huntington Beach finished in first place. With the win, Katelyn will now represent Orange County in the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held in the Washington D.C. area in May. 

“I'm nervous but excited,” she said of competing on the national stage.

Katelyn’s win is historic. She’s the first student from the Westminster School District to win the Orange County Spelling Bee. She's garnering a lot of attention for her achievement and even landed on local TV. Katelyn recently appeared on Good Day L.A. on Fox 11 where she competed with the hosts in an informal spelling competition.

Read more about Katelyn's achievement at

  • Former O.C. school district administrator pleads guilty to embezzling $15.9 million // The O.C. Register
  • California extends financial aid application deadline // CalMatters
  • Two O.C. districts partner to create the first preschool-to-high school Vietnamese-English bilingual pathway // OCDE Newsroom
  • Your student could be missing out on free money from the state of California // EdSource
  • Has California’s method for funding public schools met its mission? // CalMatters
  • Try sample questions from the new digital SAT // NY Times 
  • Immigrant parents learn robotics alongside their students at O.C. charter school //
  • The 2024 Top Teachers & School Employees announced // ParentingOC
  • Reader's Digest is searching for 'America's Favorite Teacher' // Reader's Digest
  • Summer Camp planning guide for kids // Kidsguide 
  • Enrollment for the Los Alamitos Education Foundation’s Summer Enrichment Program starts today // LAEF (Editor’s Note: The co-founder of Spotlight Schools is a donor to LAEF

Dodgers Star Gives Back to his Former High School in Orange

Dodgers player and El Modena High School alumnus Freddie Freeman poses with his family and Vanguard players at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school's new clubhouse built with a $500,000 donation from the Freeman family. Photo courtesy of the OUSD.

Just days before the 2024 Major League Baseball season kicked off this week, L.A. Dodgers star Freddie Freeman took time to visit his alma mater, El Modena High School in Orange. Freeman returned to his former campus for a ribbon cutting for a new baseball clubhouse that was built thanks to a record-setting donation from the Freeman family.

“When I was able to be blessed enough to have the resources to do something like this, that’s what I wanted to create,” Freeman said, according to an OUSD news release. “The relationships, the bonds, the stories—everything you share in that clubhouse is special. That’s what’s going to last forever. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

Read more about the Freeman family's generosity at OCDE Newsroom. Watch video highlights of the event on the OUSD Instagram account.

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