Guest Opinion | School Board Member Scott Phelps: A Culture of Choice in Pasadena

Published : Friday, January 18, 2019 | 9:09 AM

“That’s the beauty of Pasadena. Everyone does their own thing.”

This was a comment made by a neighbor chatting at a recent curbside meeting held on my street to discuss a pilot project change to an intersection. She said “____ (private school) parents have their own traffic route; _____ (another private school) parents have theirs, etc.”

Coincidentally I had also just run into a former PUSD teacher, a PUSD mom for most of her children and a private school mom for her younger daughter. She was relating how her younger daughter wanted to go to _____ (private school) and so she supported that choice.

At our neighborhood meeting was another friend, a longtime public education advocate, who now has her kids moving on from PUSD to a local private high school. She was chatting with a mom of a graduate from that same school.

There is a well-known PUSD employee who sends her many children to a local charter school and who is very negative about PUSD (and yet while making over 100K feels entitled to a much higher salary).

I well remember a former PUSD student of mine who had her child at a now defunct charter school telling the board that the families choosing that charter were “entitled to go private (they believed that charters were a kind of private school.).”

All of these moms are African-American residents of Pasadena and Altadena. All have been making choices about their children’s schools. On the diverse street I live on in Northwest Pasadena there are PUSD, charter and private school families and even a homeschool family. Family choices have been reflected in the decades of the well-known much-higher-than-average private school enrollment amongst Pasadena area residents, including by African-American and Latino families and the children of PUSD staff of various ethnicities for many years.

Families today, which can choose from many local and regional private schools and charter schools, including the longtime local charter school established by former PUSD educators that largely serves African-American families, are continuing to place their children in certain, sometimes more restrictive and almost always smaller class size environments which provide what they want for their children and where higher expectations can more easily be implemented.

Over the years, the Pasadena Unified School District has had various enrollment policies that offered choices to families. Today, the district has “open enrollment” where families can apply for any school in the district, and subject to a lottery for schools with fewer open seats than applicants, a family can enroll their child at the school of their choice. The choices made by families are based on proximity of the schools to our homes, our comfort with the school environments, with our children’s peer groups–or our desires for more diverse or less diverse experiences for our children, with the schools’ academic expectations and programs and as our children get older, with our children’s schooling choices, which can be based on where our children’s friends are going or wanting to be home with mom.

In the case of our family, after having our children at our neighborhood Cleveland Elementary school, both children went to McKinley K-8 when our son went there for 6th grade. When our son went to Marshall for 9th grade, my daughter was homeschooled for 5th and then went to Blair for grades 6-8. The latter were their choices.

The Past Year’s Voices of Choice and Entitlement

During the past year’s discussions of budget reductions and possible school closures, I heard the views of those who had made various choices and who felt entitled to being supported for those choices. Supporters of schools considered for closure felt they were entitled to have a certain school, its programs and number of staff regardless of how low the school’s enrollment was. They felt entitled to more enrollment and more funding/programs, and felt that other schools should be closed and families should be forced to enroll at their school. They expressed ownership of the school, saying things like “don’t close ____, it’s one of the only schools WE have,” and “when will folks give us OUR schools back?” Supporters of schools that have special programs felt entitled to keep their special program staffing despite the district’s fiscal challenges. Some suggested closing schools where their children did not attend, i. e., someone else’s children’s schools.

I heard other views during the past year that reflected other kinds of choices and feelings of entitlement of support for those choices. Some employees made it known that they had deserved their last raises but administrative staff hadn’t deserved them. They also felt that administrative staff such as the superintendent who work a much higher number of days in the year and have much different responsibilities didn’t deserve higher pay than teachers. One employee said she would not vote for the sales tax initiative because that would be like giving money to herself. Some special education advocates felt that board members should not be commenting on the large increases in costs for such services that now represent 25% of the district’s budget. Various critics that nearly always had a grudge over something they experienced in the district blamed the fiscal crisis and school closures on lack of leadership in the school district. Various accountability-focused advocates felt entitled to expect the school district to do more and more. Many people felt that the huge mandatory increases in pension costs were not real costs to the district. Finally, some felt that the district owed them because they lived in or worked for the district or attended a district school.


Mandated rising pension and special education costs and declining enrollment, which were the factors driving all the reductions and school closure discussions, are not phenomena primarily under the school district’s/board’s control. Declining enrollment has been occurring roughly since 2000 due overwhelmingly to market-driven rent increases and declining birth rates.

It is reflective of Pasadena’s culture of entitled and empowered choice, in this case the choice to raise rents precipitously, that the board was criticized for supporting rent control advocacy this past year to try and address that cause of declining enrollment.

The school board doesn’t set the revenue for the district. The state legislature does, based on attendance and certain district demographics. A PUSD parent asked me during the last year or so of fiscal challenges how the private schools balance their budgets. Well, they can raise the tuition, and they can hire cheaper teachers and other staff at non-union scale. They don’t have to pay the high special education costs of students and they can usually remove bullying or other misbehaving students much more easily and not admit harder to serve students. They can also raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from their parents. They almost always have much more funding per student than public schools.

During this period, school boards have closed seven lower-enrolled schools (20% of the school sites — nearly all located near the edges of the district) to decrease costs and decrease the amount of resources being spread thinly over so many schools, and at the same time established several programs to attract families both to schools towards the edges of the district (e. g., Dual Language Immersion Programs, IB programs) and towards its central urban core (e. g., Dual Language Immersion Programs, successive federally-funded magnet programs, STE(A)M programs, dedicated science teachers, . . .). Some schools considered for closure in 2010 have these programs and a can-do attitude and now have no room for more students, as strong site leadership, families and staff are collaborating to make their schools what they want them to be. There are several other strong vibrant schools where teamwork and leadership are making for thriving environments for students without necessarily having a special program or focus.

Good news about choices: Measure J and Governor Newsom’s first budget

Mayor Tornek made the choice to support PUSD. Huge kudos to him for realizing that PUSD needs support, for putting forward the sales tax initiative to help with the district’s fiscal challenges and to his sincere desire to involve the broader community more in the health of the schools. Kudos also to 72% of those voting for Measure J who made the choice to support district schools.

In further good news, Governor Newsom made some specific choices to support schools in his just-released budget plan. PUSD’s new chief business officer, Leslie Barnes, reports that the governor’s plan helps with the cost of PUSD’s contributions to the state teachers retirement system (STRS) by providing $700 million statewide to reduce the employer contribution rate in both 2019-20 and 2020-21. The impact of this to PUSD is estimated at $500,000 to $600,000 in savings over what was estimated for STRS costs in PUSD’s First Interim Report (submitted to the county last month) for each year. In addition, $2.3 billion is proposed to be used statewide toward employers’ liability, which is expected to reduce the out-year employer contribution rate by approximately 0.5%. The impact of this to PUSD is estimated to be $250,000 to $300,000 in savings in the out-years toward anticipated STRS increases. Chief Barnes also reports that the governor’s plan also provides a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 3.46% in the funding providing to schools in 2019-20 for an average increase of $343 per average daily attendance (ADA), which is 0.89% higher than what was estimated in PUSD’s First Interim Report. The Impact of this COLA on PUSD in 2019-20 is an increase to base funding of $1,162,629 and an increase to supplemental and concentration funding of $191,043 for a total increase of $1,353,672.. The impact in 2020-21 is an increase to the base funding of $1,447,458 and an increase to supplemental and concentration funding of $232,071 for a total increase of $1,679,529.

Chief Barnes does caution that it appears that PUSD’s enrollment and attendance (ADA) figures have dropped since month 3, which was used in the First Interim Report. She will be analyzing whether or not PUSD needs to include a drop in ADA in addition to increasing the decline in enrollment in the Multi-Year Plan for our Second Interim Report, which is due to the county in March. Any additional drop will reduce the anticipated revenue figures shown above. She further cautions that Special Education costs in the Second Interim Report will need to be increased. It appears that, at minimum, an increase of $500,000 should be included in the out years. (Unfortunately, the governor’s budget did not in fact help with any increased base funding for special education.) Finally, she indicates that PUSD will also need to increase the worker’s compensation rate beginning in 2019-20 by half a percent in order to show progress toward meeting PUSD’s unfunded liability.

Looking ahead and hopefully respecting choice

A committee of three board members — with a request now by the mayor for city involvement which may thus add city representation to the committee — has been appointed by the board to further consider the subject of master planning including school closures/consolidations. Some advocates have expressed a desire to decrease the enrollments of higher enrolled/higher choice schools in order to try and help lower enrolled schools increase their enrollment. Of course trying to force students to go to schools that their families don’t want them to attend will just cause those folks to make other choices that they have, including leaving the district. I tried to get the board to direct the committee not to propose changes to schools whose enrollments are the result of high levels of parental choice. I had also tried to get the board to direct the last such board committee (in 2014) to do the same, and I argued against this past year’s district stakeholder committee’s recommendations for the same reason.

Schools mentioned include Marshall and McKinley. Altering the grade levels available at Marshall would of course cause many families to leave the PUSD. They have chosen Marshall for many reasons, including the overt grooming of 6-8 grade students to take AP classes in grades 9-12, a program focus that was intentionally begun at Marshall in the 1990’s if memory serves. McKinley parents have chosen the K-8 model there for many reasons. Advocates for changes to these schools appear not to care about these choices nor any decline in district enrollment that would result. Some advocates may even be still resentful of the establishment of Marshall as a choice school with a fundamental school focus by conservative board majorities decades ago, as detailed in The Conspiracy of the Good, Civil Rights and the Struggle for Community in Two American Cities, 1875-2000, by Michael James. The book also describes how decades ago boards allowed westside students to attend McKinley rather than Washington Middle School. It may be that some advocates for other schools still want to un-do that and the re-opening of McKinley in 2002. This is sad and ignores the very diverse and healthy school communities of students, staff and parents now at Marshall and McKinley.

I hope that reason will prevail and the board will not go down a path that will lead to much divisiveness and increased loss of students from the district with its consequent need for more budget reductions and more school closures. I hope that the board will recognize the ability of families to make choices in their children’s education and the great variety and number of choices available to them. And, further, I hope that everyone will recognized the value of more diverse schools which are more reflective of the demographics of the whole area of the district, and not just whatever part of the district where a school is located.

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