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Guest Opinion | Amanda Getty: PUSD Board of Education, You Have Broken Our Trust

Published on Monday, March 25, 2024 | 5:47 am
 

Pasadena Unified parents and their supporters are demanding the immediate resignations of PUSD Board of Education Trustees Patrice Marshall McKenzie, Michelle Richardson Bailey, Jennifer Hall Lee, and Yarma Velazquez.

These four trustees voted on March 15 to upend the lives of 551 children, many representative of our city’s most vulnerable, by sending them across town to attend school at a currently dilapidated and hazardous site, rather than listening to the needs of the community and coordinating with the city to find an amicable solution for all involved parties. They are remiss in their fulfillment of the duties assigned to their elected position; each has demonstrated hypocrisy and negligence of responsibility shocking both in its hubris and gravity, and our greater Pasadena community in turn would be failing to uphold our end of the democratic bargain if we didn’t take action to remove them from office. Their actions have obliterated our trust that they will serve our city’s children and families – the only job we, their constituents, elected them to do.

The Longfellow Elementary School campus will close temporarily for extensive and much-needed Measure O-funded renovations; it is one of three schools slated for the first round of modernizations, followed by two more rounds to renovate a total of 9 PUSD schools. The PUSD board has decided that Allendale, a 20-year vacant site in disrepair across town by the 110 Freeway, will be our “swing space” for the 2025-26 school year, rather than break its (breakable) lease with the city for Jefferson Elementary School, a much more appropriate campus for our children located in our neighborhood, where many Longfellow students went to school before it was closed in 2019.

The board never once asked Longfellow families for input in their planning process. Then, after being forced to endure their testimony – tearful mothers begging the board to reconsider – it still refused to work with the city to relocate its services from Jefferson so that children can go to school in their neighborhood.

A cross-town move to Allendale will be disruptive to our kids’ development and their education. It will be a significant burden on families, 84% of which are “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” in the district’s own words; these families will bear the burden the hardest. It will fragment the vibrant culture of family engagement and mutual support and empowerment that characterizes our Community School – a designation from the state that means Longfellow centers programs that integrate it into the fabric of its neighborhood. (Incidentally, the California Community Schools program framework also stresses “authentic power sharing and shared decision-making in all aspects of school governance” and transparency “so that all interest holders can fully participate.”) Research is clear: Even one year of instability for a family in poverty can have lifelong detrimental effects for developing children. The strain this move will put on families will be too great, and kids will not thrive.

Finally, this “plan” is wasteful: The district has not disclosed any long term plan for the Allendale space, despite its intention to spend up to $5 million of Measure O funds to update the campus. For Longfellow alone the district plans to spend $1.8 million to bus kids there, while much of our student body can walk from their home to Jefferson in a few minutes.

There is no other logical interpretation of their actions; these board members are prioritizing other interests over what’s best for Pasadena’s kids:

Michelle Richardson Bailey was “very disappointed” to still be discussing the termination of the Jefferson lease at the board meeting on March 15, reaffirming her support for Allendale because “we have confidence that our staff has taken every consideration necessary to support the children of this community.” Evidently every consideration does not include the perspective of a single Longfellow parent, staff member or educator.

“The city provides services to PUSD students,” she continued. “Everyone is impacted.” With all due respect Ms. Bailey: While the city services operated out of Jefferson since 2021 are valued, five hundred and fifty one PUSD kids’ daily attendance at school – where some spend up to 11 hours a day, 5 days a week – is the only reasonable focus for the office to which you were elected, and to prioritize library and after-school activities over the conditions for their primary education is preposterous. By PUSD staff’s own assessment, the library and after-school activities currently at Jefferson could be accommodated even with Longfellow on site.

Ms. Bailey told the dozens of Longfellow families holding signs at the back of the room that night that she was “overwhelmed” by our letters asking for support (she didn’t answer mine), before she disingenuously positioned us against the Madison community in a rather transparent effort to paint our fight for equitable treatment as a somehow parasitic one.

Patrice Marshall McKenzie, ever “clear about serving students and serving families,” lamented faulty lines of communication between the school board and the city (not the board’s constituents, the angry families witnessing her equivocate) before also indulging in a similar line of duplicitous us-versus-them smokescreening: “It sounds as though we’re making accommodations for Longfellow that were not on the table for Madison …. It’s just not right for me to decide that one family’s voice is worth more than the other.”

No one is suggesting any school get special treatment. The argument has been made repeatedly to the board that Jefferson would be an easier transition for Madison families too, and for every school east of Los Robles that will also have to close for Measure O renovations. Making it the swing space is what’s best for all impacted students. Both Ms. Bailey and Ms. McKenzie have had ample opportunity to advocate for Madison to be housed at Jefferson during construction, yet neither did so.

It would be a very serious accusation indeed to suggest that Ms. McKenzie and Ms. Bailey were cynically attempting to deflect the righteous ire of one oppressed group and redirect it towards another.

Yarma Velasquez moved at the September 28 board meeting last year to prioritize Measure O renovations at San Rafael Elementary (where she is an active parent) over Longfellow, with no justification to support it. One would be forgiven for believing she took it personally when her amendment got no second: “Failure to repair San Rafael will mean the closure of our last standing school!” she reacted. “District 7, which has the highest voting turnout in the city, will know that this board has decided to completely abandon the west side!” At the March 15 board meeting, however, Dr. Velasquez readily prescribed an attitude adjustment to the angry assembly of disenfranchised Longfellow parents, teachers and staff.

“We are in a position of celebration,” she gaslighted, “and I want to keep the tone of this conversation as a celebration. Longfellow was chosen to be renovated because we want to invest in your community.” Celebrate! Of course! After all, the “temporary” fragmentation of the Longfellow school community without consideration of our needs is actually, according to Dr. Velasquez, “prioritizing” our families so that we “can have the best school in the district.”

Dr. Velasquez, Longfellow families aren’t fighting for “the best school in the district.” We know a rising tide lifts all boats. We are fighting for equity and agency in the processes that determine how all our kids learn. And rather than being told how we should feel, we would have been much more interested to hear any justification for the sudden shift of your support away from the wellbeing of Pasadena’s kids that ostensibly motivated your vote change that night.

Jennifer Hall Lee, currently running for reelection to her board seat, was so struck upon a recent visit to Jefferson by “all the effort that was put in for all the children of our community” that she appears to have lost perspective entirely when it comes to prioritizing the needs of underserved kids. She couched her disenfranchisement of the entire student body of a Title I school by celebrating the fact that 70% of the girls attending Fire Camp there are PUSD students, as are 90% of the kids in the youth crime prevention program there, not to mention the infants who are read to at the library annex; her “we need people to read to little babies” reminder might have stung this mom’s heart, were it not so flimsy an attempt to mask her intention to sell all of Longfellow’s kids down the river.

Of course, Ms. Hall Lee is correct that “not having a good relationship with the city hurts a school district,” but why she and her colleagues persist in their refusal to sit down with parents and the city to negotiate an alternative to Jefferson that works for all parties to this dispute remains a mystery. And in response to the panicked parents who can see no way to make a school across town work for their busy families, she just grinned: “We have buses!” Ms. Hall Lee might know that buses are no substitute for proximity to school for working families, had she discussed the topic of buses with working families, however multiple requests for meetings from constituents in Ms. Hall Lee’s district and communications from parents have gone unanswered.

On March 15 all four of these board members explicitly shut down a motion to end the Jefferson lease and use staff time to find the city new homes for the programs the Jefferson campus has housed. Such a motion would have been above and beyond a compromise.

More than 1,500 elementary school students would benefit from using Jefferson over the next three years, including those who attend east-side schools scheduled to be relocated in future years like Webster and Field. Will they be expected to commute to Allendale as well? We don’t know, as they have not been meaningfully included in the board’s planning process.

My own daughter will finish first grade this year, and Measure O relocation is the first issue that has brought me to PUSD school board meetings. If I may: The level of flagrant disservice that is allowed to persist in this body has left me flabbergasted. I will not dismiss that as naivete. We all deserve better.

Let me be very clear: If despite the board’s gross dereliction of duty we do not persuade them rectify their mistake, if Allendale becomes the Measure O swing space in 2025, parents across this district will once again put pure fire behind the effort it will take to protect our kids from harm and ensure that transition is smooth and enriching and fun for them. It’s just what we do as parents of school-age kids.

Parents will also remember this moment when the city proposes future bond measures, as is planned for this fall, that purport to support PUSD schools but then leave millions of dollars vulnerable to self-serving mismanagement.

And something else is also true: Should this call for their resignation go unanswered, we are fully prepared to launch recall procedures in response to these four board members’ egregious dereliction of sworn duty. This will not be the last time Trustees McKenzie, Bailey, Hall Lee and Velasquez are called upon to put kids first, and they simply can no longer be trusted to do so.

Amanda Getty is a PUSD Longfellow parent active in the PTA. To join the effort to ensure PUSD leadership prioritizes the wellbeing of our city’s children, please contact PUSDKidsComeFirst@gmail.com

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