Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Inglewood schools on edge of insolvency

Inglewood Schools on Edge of Insolvency

School districts across California are in dire financial straits, but perhaps none are as bad off as the Inglewood Unified School District, which is teetering on the brink of fiscal insolvency and state takeover.

The K-12 district is in real danger of not being able to make payroll by May. Compounding the crisis, the district’s attempt to take out a $20million short-term loan this month was rejected.

Now Inglewood school officials are struggling to avoid joining the likes of Oakland, Compton, Richmond and others on the short list of California school districts that have lost local control to the state over the years.

Of the 80 school districts across Los Angeles County, only Inglewood has had its budget rejected by the county Education Office, and only Inglewood was assigned a county fiscal adviser to oversee the financial decisions of the school board. Across California, just four other school districts are in the same boat.

“There’s some serious stuff happening,” said Chris Graeber, field representative with the union representing the Inglewood district’s support staff. “The county fiscal adviser told us Inglewood is at the top of the state’s watch list – it is in the worst shape of any school district in the state.”

The biggest torment to the district – aside from the statewide financial duress plaguing all California districts – has been the charter movement. In the past few years, charter schools have sprung up in the area, poaching the district’s students.

The budget office, meanwhile, has understated the resulting drop in projected enrollment. This throws a wrench into the budgeting process because schools are paid by the state based on student attendance.

In 10 years, the district has seen the establishment of three charter schools. The district’s student head count has slid in that time from 22,300 to just shy of 13,000. What’s more, up to four additional charter schools are on the way.

District officials could not be reached for comment last week. Neither Superintendent Gary McHenry, who took the reins in 2009, nor school board President Arnold Butler returned multiple calls last week from the Daily Breeze.

Under the watch of the county adviser, McHenry and the Inglewood school board have begun the process of enacting what promises to be a devastating round of layoffs, even by the current standards of the troubled economy. Last week the district sent preliminary pink slips to 390 of the district’s 650 certificated employees, most of whom are teachers.

By law, school districts in California have until March 15 to notify full-time tenured teachers that their positions are in jeopardy, so as to give them ample time to apply for jobs in other districts. Often, the layoff notices are rescinded and the teachers are called back. But this time, the cuts are expected to go deep.

Oddly, the more vocal union has been the one belonging to clerks, custodians and other support staff. This group, called the California Professional Employees, Local 3425, appears poised to endure fewer layoffs than their teacher counterparts, but they, too, are in line for plenty of cuts.

The classified union has staged several protests outside the district office, but the teachers haven’t organized any rallies themselves.

“Our people, more than anyone else, live here,” said Graeber, the classified union’s spokesman. “Most of our people walk to work. Everyone else other than the school board can move on.”

Peter Somberg, president of the teachers union, said he understands the district’s predicament.

“I think they are trying everything they can,” he said. “I don’t have any enmity towards Mr. McHenry. He didn’t cause all of this.”

Somberg, a kindergarten teacher who did not receive a pink slip, said his topmost concern is still the students.

“We’re trying to create critical thinkers and to help kids of poverty and kids of an urban district attain the same level of critical thinking that everyone else gets,” he said.

The fiscal adviser, Eric Hall, was not available for comment. But in January, the Los Angeles County Office of Education sent the district a strongly worded letter of warning.

“We are very concerned that failure to effectively address the District’s fiscal solvency situation in an expeditious manner may cause the District to become fully insolvent, and require an emergency apportionment,” said the letter, written by Melvin Iizuka, the county Education Office’s director of business advisory services. “An emergency apportionment would require … the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to assume control of the District through an appointed trustee or administrator.”

Such a move would render the school board toothless, relegating it to an advisory body. It would also put McHenry out of a job. In their place would be the appointed trustee, who would act as a one-person school board and superintendent.

The letter, which was based on information available in October, estimated Inglewood’s deficit for the ongoing year to be $10.4 million, or about 8.1 percent of the total $128 million budget. The county projected the deficit to swell to $20 million next year and $26.4 million the year after.

Iizuka said the projected deficits might be smaller in a month, because the board has already made some cuts. But he also said the overall assessment of the district’s fiscal health hasn’t improved since January. He was cagey on the likelihood of a state takeover.

“I couldn’t give you any guess in terms of odds,” he said. “But there is certainly a potential for that.

The turmoil raises questions about how beneficial charter schools are to the students. Nationwide and statewide, the jury is out on whether students in charter schools outperform their peers in the traditional schools. But in Inglewood, the charter schools’ scores have thus far been higher.

One of Inglewood’s charter schools, the K-8 Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, boasts the highest test scores in the district, with an off-the-charts Academic Performance Index of 932. That’s higher than what some elementary schools achieved in the affluent Palos Verdes Peninsula school district.

(More widely known as the API, the index is the state-created benchmark assigns every school a score between 200 and 1,000 based on a series of tests taken by all students in the spring.)

Another charter, Animo Inglewood High, has a more modest API of 758, but the score easily surpasses that of the district’s two comprehensive high schools, Inglewood and Morningside, which clocked in at 594 and 633, respectively.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that the protests of the classified union have paid off. Last week, the school board pulled a vote that would have reduced the length of their day from eight hours to seven. What’s more, the board voted to boost the number of furlough days for administrators, from 10 to 20 days next year for top administrators (except for McHenry) and from five to 15 days for principals.

Still, Graeber said the cuts to administrators have been disproportionately shallow in comparison with those of other school employees.

“If the district truly is shrinking, that needs to be done,” he said. “They need to make comparable cuts.”