n response to a long-looming fiscal crisis, one that could force the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) to take over the finances of the Pasadena Unified School District, the Pasadena Board of Education voted to eliminate 139 full-time employees — 87 of those positions held by teachers.
Board member Kim Kenne voted against the motion, primarily because she said there was not sufficient time to review and analyze the figures being presented by staff. Board member Larry Torres did not attend the board’s special meeting held on Feb. 8.
The district has been struggling financially for several years due to declining enrollment and state laws that favor charter schools over the public school system.
School funding by the state is based on student average daily attendance, or ADA, with current budget cuts the result of steep and ongoing reductions in the district’s student population. Due to declining attendance, the board closed four schools in 2006 and two more in 2011.
District officials have blamed the decreasing numbers on “white flight,” a phenomenon caused by upper middle-class white families pulling their children out of the struggling PUSD schools and placing them in area private schools or charter schools.
Nearly every spending category in the district’s budget — except salaries, benefits and district-issued credit card expenses at the top administrative levels — was affected by possible reductions contained in the district fiscal stabilization plan. For now, cuts are being recommended among academic and certified personnel, including not only teachers, but also assistant principals, as well as security guards and custodians.
In addition, some unfilled positions will be eliminated. Remaining guards could be moved around throughout the day to make sure all schools have adequate security, according to PUSD spokesperson Hilda Ramirez.
“It goes without saying that no one wants these cuts,” Board President Roy Boulghourjian said following the board’s discussion on proposed cuts. “We are hoping that these are the last.”
Last year, when LACOE first started raising concerns about the PUSD’s plans to reconcile its budget losses, 53 special education aides were laid off based on a LACOE recommendation calling for cuts to the district’s special ed program. Those cuts went into effect last week.
“We have been thoughtful throughout this process,” said Superintendent Brian McDonald at Thursday’s special board meeting.
“We have to continue to look for the fat and make cuts, but not ones that jeopardize academics,” McDonald said.
These probably won’t be the final belt-tightening measures the district is forced to take.
The plan approved on Feb. 8 projects funding of nearly $7 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which ends June 30, raised through increased revenues on such things as renting out school sites for filming and cost reductions.
LACOE is requiring the district to submit a final plan to cut up to $16 million from its budget by Feb. 26.
LACOE is also calling for an increase in the district’s insurance fund covering workers’ compensation, and close monitoring of enrollment trends.
Furthermore, negotiations between district officials and certified and classified employees remain unsettled and potential changes caused by raises and benefits have not been calculated into projected salary and benefit expenditures.
In an opinion piece published in the Pasadena Weekly in January, longtime Board member Scott Phelps said the district may be forced to close more schools.
“While this is difficult for the school communities, it may be required again soon.” Phelps wrote.
Former Board President Renatta Cooper said the solution is not that simple.
“Even if they close schools they can’t sell the property to a developer,” Cooper explained. “They have to offer it to a charter school first, and in Pasadena a charter school will take it and then even more parents will remove their children from the public school system and place them in the charter school, pushing the enrollment down even more.”
News of district money problems became public last week after area newspapers began receiving copies of the stern letter written to Boulghourjian by LACOE Chief Financial Officer Candi Clark. In the letter, Clark warned the district about its financial condition.
Over the past three years, Clark wrote, “Not only were planned expenditure reductions not implemented, the district has also committed itself to additional ongoing expenditures, placing the district in immediate risk of becoming insolvent.”
District officials will meet with the City Council in a special meeting tonight, Feb. 15, to call for a change to the city’s charter to comply with a new state law forcing the City Council and the PUSD to change their election calendars.
According to the agenda, the board is scheduled to present a report on the district’s fiscal stabilization plan.
Last month, Mayor Terry Tornek called for a three-quarter cent sales tax increase which is expected to raise $20 million a year. Tornek proposed that one-third of those funds be set aside to help the school district.
A vote on putting the proposed tax on the November ballot was tabled after it received scant support at the council’s Jan. 29 meeting.
According to documents provided to the Pasadena Weekly by LACOE officials, Pasadena and Inglewood are the only two school districts in Los Angeles County that have a negative certification.
“[A] negative certification means it is projected that the district will not be able to meet its financial obligations in the current or next fiscal year,” wrote Margo Minecki, a spokesperson for LACOE.
If the district becomes insolvent, LACOE could place a financial adviser in the district who could override board decisions.
“The fiscal adviser has authority to rescind current Board of Education actions,” Minecki said.
There is no guarantee that LACOE will accept the plan as sufficient to meet the district’s fiscal demands. Last year, the Montebello School District issued pink slips to more than 300 employees, among them 235 teachers, to avoid insolvency.
Months later, LACOE officials notified the school board there that their recommended fixes were not enough to calm county fears and threatened to place a fiscal adviser in the district.