by Joanne Faryon | KPBS and Kevin Crowe | inewsource

Gerry Kirkeby points to the three Spanish-style buildings, brightly white-washed, lining a leafy corner of one the country’s wealthiest communities, Rancho Sante Fe.

“We just recently built a huge new modern wonderful school,” said Kirkeby, a real estate agent and long time resident of Rancho Santa Fe. “People come here from all over the world.”

Rancho Santa Fe is home to two of the highest ranking public schools in California, which despite a state budget crisis and cuts to public education, have seen a 25 percent increase in revenue since 2005.

A KPBS/inewsource  investigation found the budgets of eight of San Diego County’s 42 public school districts have been steadily increasing in recent years. Some of them provide thousands more dollars in per pupil funding than other publicly funded schools in less affluent neighborhoods.

And the increases come from property tax dollars.

The districts, a majority of which are located in North County neighborhoods, received between $100 and $5,800 in additional revenue for each of their students in the 2009-2010 academic year – and that trend will continue through next year.

Data Source: San Diego County Office of Education

The extra funding comes from a series of court rulings and propositions during the past 40 years that have created a convoluted and, according to some, inequitable system of public education funding in California.

“Inequity has been the basis for many court challenges,” said Deborah Verstegen, an education professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of a national study on education finance.

In a 1968 case, Serrano v. Priest, the California Supreme Court ordered the state to address the gap in funding between schools in poor neighborhoods and those in wealthy communities, which could raise more money from property taxes.

In an effort to close that education funding gap, the state introduced revenue limits in 1972, which put a ceiling on how much money schools could raise.

Then, the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 caused property tax revenues to drop. Most neighborhoods didn’t – and still don’t – raise enough money in local property taxes to reach their school revenue limit. So, the state has made up the difference.

But, rising property values over the decades and shrinking state funding to schools have once again created a widening gap between rich and poor districts.

“Some districts, very few, about 124 or so in 2009-2010, have more than enough property taxes to meet their entitlement,” said Margaret Weston, an analyst with the Public Policy Institute of California. “They used to be called basic aid, and now we tend to call them excess tax districts.”

Basic aid, or, excess tax school districts get to keep the extra property tax money, said Weston, who has studied the funding sources of the state’s 978 districts.

In Rancho Santa Fe, the additional funding helps the district reduce class size from 32–1 to 17–1. The school district also hires music and art specialists. An additional 10 percent of the district’s operating budget comes from a parent-run private foundation.

State legislators have known about the inequity for years, and for the past two years have taken away some of the extra funding from the excess tax districts. But, not enough to level the playing field.

The state cut about $23 million in basic aid from the districts’ budgets in 2009 and 2010. During those same years, the districts’ combined local revenue hit $505 million.

“Variations in funding can also mean variations in opportunities to do well,” Verstegen said.

Rancho Santa Fe Superintendent Linda Delaney said rather than take away opportunity from her kids, the state ought to be providing it for all kids.

“I think it’s a funding issue and a systems issue,” Delaney said.

But for now, with a budget crisis in California and more education cuts looming, that opportunity might come at too high a price for many: owning a home in Rancho Santa Fe.

“There’s a fixer upper right now I think for 965 (thousand dollars),” Kirkeby, the real estate agent, said.

Joanne Faryon is a freelance reporter and former inewsource and KPBS reporter.