School Closings and “Draconian” Budget Cuts Dominate Pasadena School Board Meeting

“If you do this, you will have destroyed dreams,” one student told the Board

Published : Friday, October 12, 2018 | 4:55 AM

[Updated] Hundreds of angry and saddened students, staff, parents, and teachers packed the Pasadena Unified School District Board chambers, overflow meeting rooms and hallways Thursday, while the award-winning Wilson Middle School Lion Drum Corps performed outside in formation in the parking lot.

The PUSD Board had convened a special meeting Thursday to discuss the District’s Financial Stabilization Plan and proposed budget reductions for the upcoming three school years.

As presented to the Board by Interim Chief Business Officer Eva Lueck told the Board budget reductions are needed to replenish a state-required reserve fund that is suddenly shrinking, as the District begins to lose State funds due to an unexpected and unprecedented drop in attendance this school year.

District attendance has dropped this semester by almost 500 students, the largest drop in five years.

State funds which are based on attendance, account for nearly 90% of the District’s general fund.

“This attendance drop was not on our radar,” said Lueck.

“This number is far more than I anticipated,” agreed Board member Patrick Cahalan, later. “I was wrong on my predictions.”

As presented to the Board, proposed reductions could involve the closing or consolidation of three schools, along with the elimination of music programs, large reductions of the athletic program at Blair and reductions to Blair’s IB coordinator’s year from 12 to 10 months.

Reductions could also include a hiring freeze on nurses, a loss of a library coordinator, along with a reduction in STEAM teachers and Dual Language teaching coaches, among numerous other moves.

School consolidations would include moving Cleveland Elementary students to Washington Accelerated School, moving Franklin Elementary students to Altadena Elementary School, and moving Wilson Middle School students to Washington STEAM Middle School and Blair Middle School.

School Board President Lawrence Torres opened the evening meeting by telling the packed room, “This is the beginning of a dialogue. There will be no decisions and no vote tonight.”

More than 40 community members asked to address the Board during the first of two public comment sections of the meeting, which eventually ran past 11 p.m.

Blair High School Football Coach Erick Pineda set the tone early as he addressed the Board.

“Blair recently ended its 32-game losing streak this year,” he said, to a room full of applause.

“And then we won another one,” he said. More applause.

“Ending our athletics program would be a serious injustice,” Pineda continued. “Don’t re-allocate our program. This is our home.”

“Let me build something here,” said Pineda, adding, “If I had to, I would do this for free.”

Blair student athlete Adrian Padron continued the theme, saying, “Ending our program would have a huge impact. Our teams are supported by fundraising. You’re just shifting money. How is this fair?”

Pointing out the value and effect of sports for himself and his teammates, he said, “I never thought of myself as playing football for Blair, and now we’re doing something here, we’re starting something. What is the measure of success?”

Student after student told the Board the same story—their schools and their programs and education are important.

“Please save Wilson,” said Wilson Middle Student Luke Ferris, sadly. “The drum corps, the robotics…I’m going to be so sad if you do this.”

And Daniela Nava, water polo coach at Blair told the Board, “Blair sports means more than you can ever know.”

“If you do this, you will have destroyed dreams,” said Wilson Middle School student Andrea Sandoval, looking right at the Board members. “Would you cut a young bird’s wings?”

In making her presentation, Lueck was mindful of the cumulative effect of the budget cuts on students and their schools. She called the list of cuts “draconian” and added, “It’s a tall order and a very hurtful order.”

The Los Angeles County Office of Education has demanded that the District make sufficient cuts to restore and maintain the Reserve for Economic Uncertainties (REU) at the required level, and told the District leadership in a September 14, 2018 letter that it remains “concerned that the District continues to project an REU that is below the required level in 2019-20 and 2020-21.”

The District needs to maintain 3% of its total budget in the REU every year, a figure in the millions, that will become increasingly and dramatically harder to maintain should attendance continue to fall, and no new revenue sources are located.

The County letter also stated, “The County Office is prepared to take additional corrective action, should the District not fully address its structural deficit, and continue to project reserves that are below the state required minimum.”

The District’s 2018-19 Adopted Budget reflects declining enrollments with projected average daily attendance (ADA) of 15,721 in 2018-19, 15,564 in 2019-20 and 15,409 in 2020-21. The estimated impact represents a 2.0 percent decrease from the District’s 2018-19 ADA.

The District will lose State funding over time if the decline in enrollment continues, said the County.

“The District must carefully monitor its enrollment trends and adjust its financial projections accordingly,” the County office noted, “including related staffing adjustment, for the current and subsequent fiscal years if further material reductions in enrollment occur, or are expected to occur.”

During the Board discussion, Board member Patrick Cahalan said, “I’m not comfortable voting to close any schools. It’s too early and it’s not fair.”

Board member Michelle Richardson Bailey went further, saying, “I don’t support cutting any music or arts programs, or anything that directly impacts students. Let’s go back to basics. We need to find programs that work.”

Pasadena Unified Superintendent Brian McDonald told the Board that a Board study session needs to be scheduled as soon as possible.

“We don’t have time to create committees,” said McDonald. “The Board needs to take over the conversation on these school closings. Board members need to lead the conversation,” he said, adding that time was an issue, and that the board needs to be ready to vote on final reductions at its November 25 meeting.

 

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