Potential reductions include school closures; elimination of arts and sports programs
By Gus Herrera
“Draconian” cuts are once again back on the table for the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) following a shocking 500-student drop in enrollment.
Just as the district’s financial woes were beginning to seem manageable, the light at the end of the tunnel has diminished into a faint star and the board of education is once again confronted with a list of cuts that even include potential school closures.
Just a couple of months ago, during the board’s August meeting, it seemed as though things were beginning to trend in a positive direction – in fact, Chief Interim Business Officer Eva Lueck revealed that the district’s main operating fund balance turned out to be higher than originally projected, to the tune of $3.64 million.
The board was even considering the possibility of meeting it’s formal policy of maintaining six percent worth of reserves – as opposed to the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s (LACOE) mandated three percent target.
That said, the district was still facing a projected deficit of $4.1 million for FY2020/21 and modest cuts over the next couple of years were going to be required. But now that the district has been thrown a nasty curve ball, in the form of a serious drop in student enrollment, that $4.1 million target has ballooned to $10.1 million.
Even though the district had seen significant drops in enrollment over the past few years (203 in 2017, 146 in 2016, and 85 in 2015), Lueck admitted that “it was not on [the PUSD’s] radar that [enrollment] was going to drop 500 students.”
“When I presented to you back in August, $10 million was going to get you to a six percent reserve,” continued Lueck, “now it will get us to our mandated three percent.”
The board must now scramble to implement the necessary reductions (or revenue increases) into the district’s fiscal stability plan before Nov. 15 or risk ceding financial control to LACOE.
The list of 24 potential cuts, which was first presented to the board at their Oct. 11 meeting, includes the closure of two elementary schools (Cleveland and Franklin) and one middle school (Wilson); elimination of elementary school art programs; elimination of the Families in Transition program; elimination of CIF athletics from Blair High School; a freeze on the hiring of school nurses; closure of the Community Engagement Center; elimination of various staff positions; and more.
“It’s quite an appalling list when you look at it,” said Lueck, “some of the items on there are very draconian and may cause concern … Pasadena is unique in the sense that it provides a lot more social services than other districts do … and those are on the list.”
If all the reductions were to be implemented, the district would stand to save between $10.8 million and $11.2 million. The potential closures of Cleveland, Franklin, and Wilson are projected to save the PUSD approximately $3.79 million through FY2020/21.
As was expected, dozens of parents, teachers, and students packed the board meeting during the public comment portion in order to urge their representatives to not shut down schools and programs. In addition, various teachers representing United Teachers of Pasadena (UTP), provided heavy criticism of PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald, who recently received a vote of “no confidence” from 83 percent of UTP members.
“The biggest issue the district has faced … has been a lack of vision,” testified one teacher, “we seem to be continually in a crisis mode, only looking for short-term solutions … please do not renew [McDonald’s] contract. If there was a grade lower than an ‘F,’ I’d use it.”
“PUSD employees across the district are upset, feel undervalued and overworked, and do not have faith in the current district administration,” said another UTP representative, “we need to get this district back on track and find the right superintendent who will find the way to take us from good to great.”
Pasadena Councilmember Tyron Hampton (a PUSD product and former member of the PUSD board of directors) also joined the testimony and urged the board to continue supporting Cleveland Elementary, as well as the district’s Families in Transition program.
“Stopping a program that helps our most vulnerable population of students wouldn’t be the most wise decision,” warned Hampton.
Although no formal action was taken, a couple of board members made it clear they would not support school closures or the elimination of school programs.
“I want to offer an apology to the public for the fact that this conversation has to happen the way that it does,” said PUSD Board Vice President Patrick Cahalan, “I would not be comfortable voting to close a school in the upcoming academic year because I think it’s too close to the open enrollment period … last time the public heard from us, in March … we were tabling school closures, so I don’t think it’s fair to the school community to make this decision.”
“I don’t support cutting any music program or any program that … directly impacts our students,” said Board Member Michelle Richardson-Bailey, “one of the goals of this board was to keep cuts away from the schools … we need to make sure we’re focusing on the kids first.”
The PUSD board of education is scheduled to finalize the list of reductions at their Oct. 25 meeting.