At Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, it isn’t unusual to see sixth-graders sweeping up their classroom after recess.
That’s partly because budget cuts have taken a bite out of the custodial staff, which now cleans the room just twice a week. But it’s also because classrooms packed with 40 students tend to get dirty in a hurry.
With K-8 class sizes as high as 40 and some high school class sizes hitting 50, the Inglewood Unified School District is a picture of impending financial devastation.
The beleaguered K-12 district is on the verge of becoming the ninth public school system in California to lose local control to the state since a law authorizing such takeovers took effect 20 years ago. And the Inglewood teachers union is begging the state to do it.
On Wednesday, Inglewood Unified will try to seek a waiver from the state Board of Education to avoid penalties for its large class sizes, which in many cases greatly exceed negotiated maximums. Teachers say it will have the effect of making class sizes even larger, bumping the average size of fourth-through-sixth-grade classrooms to 38.
“All in order to save money so the district can buy a little bit more time, and save a few more months of their jobs,” said Shannon Gibson, a second-grade teacher at Bennett-Kew, while giving one of the state board members – Carl Cohn – a walking tour of the school Thursday.
“(The district) is going to go under. We are sorry for that. We’ve done everything we can. They don’t have a plan in place to recover. It’s time to just let go” and let the state take over.
Although public school districts across the state are limping along financially, none in California appear to be as bad off as Inglewood Unified – so far.
“They are the only ones right now who have declared a fiscal emergency, essentially saying, `We are out of cash,”‘ said Anthony Bridges, deputy CEO at Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, the state’s premier school finance consulting firm. “At this juncture in the budget cycle, no one is parallel with Inglewood.”
But Inglewood could be a canary in a coal mine.
If the state’s tax rolls fall too short of projections – and right now it isn’t looking good – then school districts across the state will be forced to make dreaded midyear budget cuts. This could push more of them closer over the edge.
Inching ever closer to the brink is the state’s second largest public school system, San Diego Unified, which is facing widespread school closures and the threat of insolvency. Here, talk of a potential state takeover has just begun.
Inglewood Unified is also considering school closures. On Thursday,
Dr. Carl Cohn visits a sixth-grade classroom whose floors the students have to sweep themselves, as cutbacks have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is 33. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
Superintendent Gary McHenry sent out a memo revealing a plan to combine Daniel Freeman and Warren Lane elementary schools, each of which enroll just 200 or fewer students.
Going into state receivership is a dubious distinction. On the one hand the state would bail out the district financially. But it also would render McHenry jobless and the elected school board toothless. A state administrator would be assigned by California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson to effectively serve as a one-person board and superintendent.
In late October, the Los Angeles County of Education sent the district a letter stating, in effect, that it is on track to run out of cash by April.
Inglewood Unified has tried to get a handle on the situation by making Draconian cuts – in one year, the district has lost nearly a third of its teachers, reducing the roster from 650 to 450 – but there seems to be no way to stop the hemorrhaging.
Thus far, no evidence has emerged of fraud or embezzlement, Bridges said. But there have been cases of negligent spending. For instance, an attorney who was fired by the district continued to collect health benefits for a year afterward, said Chris Graeber, president of the classified union representing employees such as custodians, clerical workers and bus drivers.
“It didn’t go over well, let’s put it that way,” he said. “If one of our people gets fired, they cut off the benefits the very next day.”
And in 2009, board members publicly accused administrators of wasting $3 million in taxpayer money without authorization, according to the Wave newspaper. The expenses allegedly included using $4,300 from district accounts to purchase a trip to Sea World and an “unauthorized $800,000 demolition” of an elementary school.
The district also appears to have been caught off guard by a rapid plunge in enrollment, with many students leaving for charter schools. In a decade, the rolls have fallen from 18,000 to just above 12,000. And the exodus is showing no signs of abating: The district this year lost another 1,000 students.
As for the cash flow issue, it is no small matter. The county projects the district to be $1.7 million in the hole by April. The shortfall is expected to grow exponentially, hitting $23 million by June. This, with a district that works with a general fund budget of about $102 million.
Meanwhile, the Inglewood teachers union has decided that at this point, a state takeover seems the best way to avoid further destruction. This fall, the union’s governing board voted unanimously to voice its approval of the state loan.
“Our goal is to enrich the students’ day, and close the achievement gap,” said union President Pete Somberg. “We don’t see how the current leadership is able to do that when all they are looking for is financial daylight so they can maintain local control. If local control means ransoming a generation of kids, we are not for it.”
Inglewood school leaders – including McHenry, school board President Johnny Young and head business official Glenston Thompson – have not returned phone calls requesting comment.
Though Inglewood still has time to pull itself out of the quicksand, the lengthy process for enacting a state takeover is already under way. Back in the spring, the Inglewood school board, acting on advice from a county-appointed fiscal adviser, officially requested a state loan. This essentially sets the gears in motion for state receivership. The request then must travel through both houses of the Legislature and finally to the governor’s desk. The process typically takes four to six months.
On Thursday, Cohn didn’t tip his hand on whether he favors granting the district a waiver for large class sizes. He said he worries that Inglewood could be a bellwether for more ominous times.
“The list of school districts in fiscal distress has gone up dramatically in the last year,” he said. “Ten, 12, 15 years ago, the state actually had money to bail them out.
“Now the big question will be is Inglewood the beginning of a process of a significant increase in the need for bailouts from a state that has no money.”