Guest Opinion | Bryant Mathews: Invest Measure J Funds in PUSD’s Future, Not in Keeping Open Half-Empty Schools

Published : Tuesday, October 8, 2019 | 7:32 PM

The month of October will be pivotal for Pasadena Unified School District. A Special Meeting of the Board of Education will be held on Thursday, October 10, to discuss possible secondary (middle and high) school closures, with decisions to be made later in the month.

Although the district’s secondary enrollment has fallen by 3,100 students since the year 2000, no secondary schools have been closed during that period. Davis Demographics forecasts that the district will lose an additional 1,000 secondary students by the year 2025-26, as low birth rates and high housing costs conspire to shrink the pool of available students.

District staff project that falling enrollment will lead to a $17.3 million loss in annual revenue over the next six years. As a result, the $7 million per year from the new Measure J sales tax will be used to “backfill lost revenue” rather than to reverse debilitating cuts to school budgets from the last several years, raise lagging teacher pay, reduce class sizes, or address deferred maintenance. Even with the additional revenue from Measure J, the district is budgeting $4 million in cuts for 2020-21, with “additional budget reductions necessary to offset anticipated declining enrollment through 2024-25.”

Shockingly, after building a compelling case for school consolidation, staff’s board presentation recommends maintaining all four of the current high school programs, and it remains silent on middle school closures.

The Board’s Master Plan/Boundary Subcommittee, which has held 15 public meetings over the past year, does offer some possible scenarios for consolidation. However, a majority of the Subcommittee’s recommendations would simply move students around without closing any schools. Such moves would do little to resolve our budget challenges. Only by closing entire schools will the district realize significant savings on staffing and facilities costs.

Without Measure J funds, the district would have little choice but to close secondary schools. However, it now appears that the worst fears of Measure J proponents may be coming true: the additional $7 million per year looks as though it will be squandered keeping open too many half-empty schools rather than being invested in the district’s future. Measure J money is sorely needed for music, art, and science teachers, counselors, aides, librarians, smaller class sizes, teacher raises, deferred maintenance, and special programs, but it won’t be available for any of these needs until we right-size the district. Any closures will regrettably cause disruption for the students and families affected (who should be given priority during open enrollment). However, the status quo of indecision is necessitating cuts that hurt all of PUSD’s students, and it needlessly prolongs the state of uncertainty hanging over PUSD’s schools.

The scale of the district’s excess capacity is, to quote the Board Chair, “terrifying.” The Board Subcommittee projects 4,300 empty secondary seats by 2023-24. The average enrollment across PUSD’s secondary schools is currently about 950 students, while the average in neighboring districts is around 1,450. For the sake of comparison, PUSD has seven middle school programs for 3,600 students, whereas Glendale USD has four middle schools for 4,400 students. At the high school level, PUSD has four programs for 4,300 students, while Alhambra USD has three schools for 6,700 students.

In this time of financial stress, the district needs bold leadership from its Superintendent and Board of Education. These leaders must come together to develop a consensus plan to close one high school program and to close at least two middle school facilities, keeping in mind their goals of promoting equity and socioeconomic integration. The resulting rise in enrollment at the remaining schools will enable more robust programming, student support services, professional development, and parent communities at those schools. Moreover, the right-sizing of the district will increase parents’ confidence in sending their children to PUSD schools, knowing that the district is getting its financial house in order and won’t need to go through painful consolidation discussions once again at this time next year.
Bryant Mathews is a Professor of Mathematics at Azusa Pacific University. He is the parent of a PUSD second grader and serves on the District Advisory Council and School Site Council.

 

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