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In the East Bay, school spending and academic achievement vary widely, with some districts appearing to get more bang for their bucks than others.
The reasons for the disparities are complex, district officials say. Yet most agree that spending more doesn't necessarily guarantee higher Academic Performance Index, or API, scores, while spending less doesn't always mean students will fare poorly.
Contra Costa County's top-spending district -- Orinda elementary -- also had the top API score. Alameda County's top spender was Emery, which ranked near the bottom in test scores. But Alameda County's top-scoring district -- Piedmont unified -- was also a relatively big spender.
Orinda spent $9,473 per student and achieved an API score of 954 on a 1,000-point scale; 800 is the statewide goal for proficiency. Emery spent $13,680 per student and scored 709, while Piedmont doled out $11,579 per student and scored 925.
"It's actually very hard to isolate the factors that cause the API score to be as high as it is," said Lisa Bissell, Orinda's director of instruction and curriculum. "Per pupil spending may be one factor, but I think it's more about how we use what we have, rather than the amount of money we get. We have a high priority on professional development."
Both Orinda and Piedmont get about one-third of their funding from parcel taxes, foundations and parent donations. This money gives them the luxury of spending on small class sizes, art teachers and other programs and staff, which some less affluent districts can't afford.
"Piedmont's 'extra' expenses are for the 'extra' services such as elementary librarians, counselors and middle and high school seven-period days to include a variety of elective choices," Piedmont Superintendent Constance Hubbard said in an e-mail. "What is termed 'extra' now was not considered 'extra' 30 years ago."
Emery Superintendent John Sugiyama said the tiny Emeryville district, which serves about 726 students, has a higher percentage of children from economically disadvantaged homes than any other Alameda County district, including Oakland.
"So, they come to us with challenges that we're committed to address," Sugiyama said. "Some of the added expense goes to trying to level the playing field a little bit."
The same is true in Contra Costa County's lowest-scoring West Contra Costa district, which spent $8,899 per student and achieved an API score of 696. The district has a large percentage of special education and low-income students, said Sheri Gamba, associate superintendent for business services.
"Families in cities with greater median incomes, like San Ramon, may be able to spend much more in providing their children with the background knowledge and information that helps them to be more successful in school," Gamba said in an e-mail.
A Times analysis of the California Watch data showed four districts beat the odds by spending less than three-quarters of districts in the state, while scoring in the top quarter. These were: Brentwood elementary and Walnut Creek elementary in Contra Costa County and Castro Valley unified and Fremont unified in Alameda County.
Two districts appeared to be sorely "upside down" in terms of expenditures and test scores, with spending in the top 25 percent statewide and achievement in the bottom 25 percent. These were Emery and Oakland.
Oakland spends more than some others in part because it pays $6 million on a state loan from when it was in receivership, said spokesman Troy Flint. It also spends more on security than most districts and has more schools per capita, including early childhood education centers, charter schools and small campuses, which cost more to operate, he said.
The district has developed a draft strategic plan aimed at turning schools into community centers that provide medical, dental and mental health services, he said. Kaiser is providing an $8 million grant and the district wants to collaborate with other community partners to holistically care for the city's children with shared funding, he said.
Many other East Bay districts received test scores that appeared to be in roughly line with their spending. For example, the Mt. Diablo district in Contra Costa County spent $8,199 per student and received a score of 784. Both were in the median range statewide.
Mt. Diablo Superintendent Steven Lawrence said some California districts receive hundreds to thousands more per student than others. But statewide, districts receive $1,000 to $2,000 below the national average, he said.
"California's leaders and citizens need to decide whether or not a world class education is necessary for our children to economically compete nationally and internationally," Lawrence said in an e-mail. "If so, funding our schools at least at the national average should be a minimum goal."
Spending Vs. scores
A sample of 2009-10 per-student spending compared with 2010 Academic Performance Index (API) growth scores in some East Bay districts. Browse the California Watch database at
District Per-student spending API score*
Alameda City $8,630 833
Berkeley $12,092 785
Castro Valley $7,429 854
Emery $13,680 709
Fremont $7,449 858
Hayward $8,962 707
Livermore Valley $7,993 822
New Haven $8,182 777
Oakland $10,958 719
Piedmont $11,579 925
Pleasanton $7,599 906
San Lorenzo $8,096 739
District Per-student spending API score
Acalanes $9,327 899
Brentwood $6,918 840
Antioch $7,578 732
Liberty $7,519 747
Martinez $7,555 819
Mt. Diablo $8,199 784
Oakley $6,909 779
Orinda $9,473 954
Pittsburg $7,995 718
San Ramon Valley $7,824 916
Walnut Creek $7,345 907
West Contra Costa $8,899 696
State's Median $8,213 783
*Target is 800
Source: California Watch