There’s debate over whether La Salle Avenue Elementary is getting a fair share of funding to deal with challenges its students face. (Howard Blume / Los Angeles Times)

No one questions that students at La Salle Avenue Elementary, with their low academic achievement, could use a hand up.

A civic coalition spearheaded by United Way of Greater Los Angeles puts the South L.A. campus at the very top of schools needing more services and attention; the L.A. Unified School District, however, puts the school at 293rd on its need index out of some 1,000 campuses, according to advocates.

That dichotomy is at the heart of two just-released reports, an ongoing lawsuit and a now yearly push to change the way the nation’s second-largest school district does business. The pressure has had some effect, but the coalition remains unsatisfied even as the school system defends its efforts at La Salle and other troubled schools.

This particular dispute is over extra money the state provides to get extra help to the students it deems need it most: foster children, those from low-income backgrounds and those learning English. This funding is at the core of education policies enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown, and it adds up to about $1.1 billion per year for L.A. Unified, because about 82% of its students fall into these categories. That added funding is about 13% of the school system’s operating budget.

Critics accuse the district of using the additional money illegally and say district officials mostly treat the funding as though it could be applied anywhere, a central claim in a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the locally based Community Coalition. In recent times, L.A. Unified has used rising state revenues to restore or increase services to all students and to give employees a 10% salary increase after eight years without one.

“If you have students who are are generating those dollars, they should be the ones receiving services from those dollars,” said Sara Mooney, education program officer for the local United Way.

District officials said they still were reviewing the new research on Monday and the input from outside groups.

“I appreciate their ongoing commitment to providing necessary feedback and welcome the new report as we consider various policy and budget decisions that lay ahead,” said L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King. “The issue of equity among all of our schools has always been front and center.”

At La Salle, about 93% of students are from low-income black or Latino families. More than half of the Latino children are learning English. Standardized test scores are among the lowest of the city’s elementary schools: 2% meeting or exceeding state goals in English; 5% in math.

So how does the district rank La Salle 293rd? La Salle has much competition when it comes to need, but the the district’s formula for discerning need also is a factor.

The district tabulates its ranking based on the percentage of low-income, English-learner and foster students — the groups the state wants it to focus on.

Critics say the assessment needs to come with more context, including neighborhood conditions such as health outcomes and exposure to violence as well as access to youth programming, childcare, early childhood education, test scores, suspension rates and dropout rates.

The district’s calculation also makes no distinction between lower-income families and those living in extreme poverty.

“There is a large difference between a community with a median income of approximately $35,000 (e.g., Hollywood) and a median income of approximately $25,000 (e.g., Watts), which is not fully captured by the LAUSD Need Index,” according to a new report by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages 19 schools on behalf of L.A. Unified.

The partnership has taken on some of the lowest-performing campuses, which likely would benefit from a revamped index.

La Salle is district-run, and second-year Principal Aleta Parker-Taylor says she makes the most of the resources she has — some ongoing, some new.

She just added an assistant principal and a psychiatric social worker to strengthen mental-health support. She employs two part-time aides for safety and supervision and four teacher aides to help her 20 teachers. A library aide comes every other week and a nurse one day a week. Two carts of computers allow computer access for up to two classes at a time. She’s applied for an internal district grant for a third cart.

If anything, she said, she’d like more mental health and social support services for families, both inside and outside of school, because it would help her students.

A key point of debate has to do with the way that the district staffs schools. L.A. Unified provides teachers based on the number of students and generally without regard to whether a teacher earns a high or low salary based on years of experience or additional training. So two schools could have the same number of students and teachers but vastly different staffing costs.

The class size at La Salle mirrors most district campuses: about 24 to 1 in early grades; 31 to 1 for grades 4 and 5.

More experienced (and expensive) teachers tend to migrate away from the most difficult schools, so the district frequently spends more on teachers at the “better” schools.

If the district committed to spend more on staffing at needier schools, those schools might get higher-paid, more experienced teachers or more teachers, said UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, who with colleague Joonho Lee prepared a report that was released Monday for the coalition.

Such an approach, however, would upend district practices and come up against unionized instructors, who have won the right to apply to work at schools of their choice.

“There is this good news thread” at the high school level, Fuller said, where the district is spending more dollars as the state intended, largely through adding non-teaching staff such as counselors. “The district did exercise its discretion to try to lift kids in these high-needs high schools.”