There is one thing that is abundantly clear in the state of public education in California: funding cuts have been deep and prolonged, with direct impact on our students. [Okay, that’s three things, intertwined.] What is less clear to many of us, including parents and voters, is how various public school-related agencies intersect.

Money flows from multiple sources and makes stops along the way before it reaches your child’s classroom. Each agency has a function that entitles it to a share of your tax dollars earmarked for public education. It’s possible in this funding climate to see on the one hand, neighborhood schools cutting back, but a County agency, for example, has enough excess revenue to purchase a new building for staff growth.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex heirarchy, what follows is an attempt to map out where your neighborhood school falls into the grand scheme of public education in California. We’ll start by looking at the hierarchy of agencies with very general information about funding. Watch for a follow up post with more detail about how our schools are funded.


There are eleven campuses in the the Santa Cruz City Schools district serving approximately 7,000 students from Davenport to Capitola.

  • Elementary Schools: Gault, De Laveaga, Bay View, Westlake
  • Middle Schools: Branciforte, Mission Hill
  • High Schools: Soquel, Harbor, Santa Cruz
  • Small Schools Campus: These alternative education programs are clustered on the former Branciforte Elementary School campus. Monarch Alternative School (K-6), Alternative Family Eduction (AFE, K-12 home school program), Costanoa High School (continuation program), The Ark Independent Studies (high school).
  • Charter School: Delta Charter High School at Cabrillo College (one of the oldest charter schools in California)
  • Adult School

Governance & Administration: The administrative leader at each school is the principal. Within each school, there are usually two groups led by elected or appointed representatives that oversee funds and programs – the Site Council and the Parent Association. Site Councils are composed of the principal and elected representatives of teachers, classified employees (non-teaching staff) and parents. Site Councils review and edit educational program plans (Single Plans for Student Achievement) and approve expenditures for some of the programs funded by the state and federal governments. Parent Associations (PTA, Home and School Club, PTOs, etc.) are independent from school administration, but operate in close cooperation to support school programs, enrichment activities and, increasingly, to raise funds for essential needs.

Funding: All public, non-donated, funds for individual schools flow through the Santa Cruz City Schools district to the individual schools. A school’s budget ranges from less than $2 million for our smallest elementary school, Gault, to over $4 million for Santa Cruz High, our largest high school. Principals act as CEOs of their school, working out the core budget for each of their schools.


We are actually two school districts, Santa Cruz City Elementary (K-6) and Santa Cruz High (7-12),  sharing a common administration and board of education. Our middle schools are part of both the elementary (6th grade) and high school (7th-8th grade) districts. There are just over 1,000 school districts, ranging from single schools of fewer than 100 students to LAUSD, the second largest district in the country. Santa Cruz City Schools, with 7,000 students, is the second largest district in our county behind Pajaro Valley, with 19,000 students.

Governance & Administration: The elected Board of Education oversees the district’s $60 million budget. The board meets every two weeks at the County Office of Education. Agendas and packets can be found here. District administrative offices are housed in converted classrooms on the Soquel High campus. Our Superintendent, Gary Bloom, is under the direct supervision of the Board of Education. District functions are divided among the Education Services, Business Services and Human Resources departments.

Funding: Each neighborhood school receives funds from multiple sources of public revenue. From the federal budget to local property taxes, revenues have been on a steep decline for years. Our district has weathered nearly $10 million in reductions in the past four years. The burden of addressing state and federal cuts to education falls to the Santa Cruz City Schools district staff, board of education and the Budget Advisory Committee. How is the district funded? Most will concur that public school funding, at least in California, is extraordinarily complex. In general, the district receives funds through four major channels:

  • Revenue Limit (funds per 7-12 grade student, based on average daily attendance)
  • Basic Aid (flat-rate funds paid through property taxes to the district for our K-6 programs, independent of the number of students enrolled)
  • Categorical Funds from the state and federal government for specific programs like special education, English language learners, etc.
  • Parcel Taxes, local funds paid by property owners for specific purposes as outlined in ballot language. Small class sizes, arts, libraries, counseling, are some of the programs funded through voter-approved parcel taxes.


Within Santa Cruz County, there are 11 school districts (including the County Office of Education) serving approximately 48,000 students. There are four “small” or single district schools: Bonny Doon, Pacific, Happy Valley and Mountain. San Lorenzo Valley, Scotts Valley, Live Oak, Soquel Elementary, Pajaro Valley and Santa Cruz City Schools.

Governance and Administration: The County Office of Education, one of 58 in the state, is led by an elected Superintendent, currently Michael Watkins, and an elected board of trustees representing seven areas throughout the county. The County employees a small number of teachers to staff alternative education programs; the majority of its staff are administrators providing business, training, technical and curriculum services to school districts. The Superintendent is charged with advising all school districts within the county in the application of sound financial practices. The elected board has jurisdiction only over educational programs operated by the COE. In addition, the County Board resolves disputed transfers of students between school districts.

The County Office of Education serves approximately 2,000 students in state-defined alternative education  and other programs like court schools, ROP (Regional Occupational Program, or what used to be known as vocational) classes, schools for students who have been expelled from district schools and specialized special education services. Pacific Collegiate Charter School falls under the supervision of the County Board of Education, although it draws its students largely from the Santa Cruz City Schools high school district boundaries due to its status as a “charter on appeal”. In addition to the state defined functions for County Offices of Education, our County Office also operates like a regular school district, serving general education students (who would otherwise attend their home district schools) in programs like Oasis, Natural Bridges and Ponderosa.

Funding: The County Office of Education receives Revenue Limit dollars (ADA) for students enrolled in County programs in addition to a share of all state and federal funds that flow to districts. This is why you will see different figures for what the state allocates per student and what the school districts receive per student. Some of those dollars make a stop at the County level to fund their operations. The County Office is paid by the state from funds that would otherwise go to school districts to provide services like payroll or internet and programs like Outdoor Science School. Some County Special Education programs are federally funded.


At the state level, multiple branches address public education, the largest component of the State budget.

  • The California Department of Education (CDE) enforces the California Education Code (Ed Code); ensures that school districts are meeting federal requirements; collects and analyzes testing and demographic data; and guides districts on compliance questions.
  • The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an elected position, currently held by Tom Torkalson. The SSPI administers the CDE and the policies of the State Board of Education.
  • The State Board of Education (SBE) is appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate. The SBE approves textbooks, assessments, curriculum and the related policies. The SBE also acts as court of appeals for local issues and grants waivers to counties, districts and charters who ask for exceptions to the rules of the California Education Code.
  • The State Legislature approves the annual budget that determines funding for all public education programs in the state. They also develop and pass laws that impact every aspect of education, from operations to finance to instruction.
  • The Governor develops the annual state budget and appoints the state board of education. The Governor can also sponsor, approve or veto laws affecting education. Governor Brown eliminated the cabinet-level Secretary of Education. Because of his personal interest in education, he is performing the functions of that position and has made several appearances before the State Board of Education.


The Federal Education Department (ED) is a cabinet-level function led by President Obama’s appointed Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The ED develops policy recommendations for the White House and Congress, advocates for polices and enforces the regulations tied to federal funding. Less than $0.20 of every education dollar comes from the federal government, but federal policies guide much of what takes place in our schools.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first passed in 1965. This was the broadest legislation ever enacted and continues today under the 2001 iteration of the act, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The ESEA establishes the funds for elementary and secondary school programs, including Title 1, funds set aside to raise achievement for low income students. Accountability under No Child Left Behind requires that 100% of all students, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities, must achieve “proficiency” in English andMath on standardized tests by 2014. Severe penalties are in place for schools that fail to achieve the benchmarks leading to this goal. Given the statistical impossibility of NCLB, it is expected that the law will be re-written before 2014. President Obama and Secretary Duncan are currently entertaining waivers, with special obligations attached, for states.

Interested in learning more? There are many resources available on the internet. Here are just a few California-focused sites that we recommend:

Coming soon: How your tax dollars move between these agencies before arriving in your student’s classroom.