In March, the seven-member Board of Education threatened to close schools due to state and federal budget cuts, which coincided with dramatic enrollment reductions, which resulted in the PUSD cutting nearly $10 million from its $155 million operating budget and laying off 64 teachers, administrators, security personnel and classified workers.
Now, faced with a Dec. 15 deadline from the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) to make an additional $4.6 million in cuts, the district is once again faced with the prospect of closing or consolidating schools in order to save money.
How many schools? That is not known at this time. But, “Everything is on the table,” PUSD Superintendent Percy Clark told the Weekly. “The clock is ticking, but I think the board will make the right decisions. I think they understand where they have to go. We’re having a series of meetings to get it finalized.”
If PUSD fails to meet the deadline, LACOE could appoint a committee or an adviser to develop a budget and implement reductions.
“If a district is not meeting its financial obligations, then the County Superintendent can take certain steps,” said LACOE spokeswoman Margo Minecki. “The first step is they would be considered a ‘going district.’ That means they are not taking the steps to meet their financial obligations, and we could take steps to correct that.”
Whatever cuts are made will likely include school closures and consolidation. During the last round of cuts, activists, parents and teachers were outraged at the possibility of school closures, and their protests forced the board to make $10 million in cuts without closing schools.
But this time there may be no other alternative. Massive cuts have already resulted in the loss of school site administrators, campus police, libraries, transportation and contracted services.
And ongoing declining enrollment, which is used to determine the amount of state funding that a district is eligible for, continues to plague not only Pasadena but also more than half of the school districts in California.
In the PUSD last year there were 22,228 students. This year, enrollment has dropped to 21,379. That 850-student loss translates into a fiscal loss of nearly $4.3 million, and that loss of funding has led at least one board member to change his mind about school closures.
“I know in the past I said I was against school closures, and I really wish there was another way, but I didn’t expect to lose 850 students,” said Board Member Bill Bibbiani. “I have had to reconsider my position on school closure or consolidation. I think at this point, it is necessary.”
School officials estimate that closing a mid-sized elementary school would save the district $300,000. Closing a middle school would save $950,000. And closing one of the district’s four high schools would net the district an extra $1.5 million
The Board of Education asked for community input on its plans at five community engagement meetings last month. During those meetings, parents, residents and others had a chance to discuss the budget crisis.
“I think they are trying to get some input from the community and let us know what’s going on,” said Dawn O’Keefe, a mother of three PUSD students who attended three of the meetings. “It was a good start, but I think the district is faced with some tough choices. I think they have to be very careful and they have to look at the long term and look at those choices very wisely. They have a pressing, immediate problem and need to be careful to make choices that in the long run are not the wrong choices.”
Critics claim that the meetings were a waste of time and that the district has already made up its mind.
“The meetings are meant to look good, and it is designed to look like the board wants serious engagement, but they are orchestrated,” said activist Bonita Olszewsi, who has no children in the PUSD. “They are not even meant to engage the public intelligently. They have an agenda and they just want to say they gave the public a chance to provide input.”
Clark denied having any such hidden agenda and said the meetings were held to allow critics and supporters to voice their views.
“There are individuals who will claim conspiracies,” Clark said. “There was not perfection with the process, but at least there was a process. We’re not attempting to deceive anyone. There was no hidden agenda except to find out how the public wants to reshape the district. For those who want to create a conspiracy, it’s null and void.”