School funding is predicated on student attendance, and simply put, without more children attending its schools the Pasadena Unified School District is headed for financial disaster.
Currently unable to pay its bills, and facing the threat of being taken over by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, this means most things that are taken for granted — from athletic, after-school, arts, music, and health programs to teachers, janitors and security guards— are being considered for elimination.
A beleaguered PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald made the announcement at a recent joint meeting of the Board of Education and the City Council.
“Everything is on the table,” McDonald said during the Feb. 15 special meeting at City Hall. “We’re a smaller district now and we have to find a way to right size the district by reducing staff and realigning facilities to match enrollment.”
The current financial crisis has been ongoing for almost 20 years and several superintendents have grappled with ever-declining attendance.
The state calculates the money that a public school district receives by measuring the average daily attendance of students. According to a presentation by McDonald, the district, which currently has 16,865 students, has lost more than 2,000 students over the past seven years. Since 2000, the district has lost more than 7,000 students, according to the PUSD website. Currently there are 30 schools open in the school district. The district closed four schools in 2006 and two more in 2011.
Some district officials have blamed the decreasing numbers of students on “white flight,” a phenomenon caused by upper middle-class white families pulling their children out of PUSD schools and placing them in area private schools or charter schools.
“I invite members of the public irrespective of race to take another look at the PUSD,” said Councilman John Kennedy, a Blair High School graduate.
An increase in housing prices has also pushed more families to move eastward, toward the Inland Empire where property is more affordable.
“We will be right back looking at cuts next year as long as we have declining enrollment and flat revenue,” McDonald said.
Last month, the district received a letter from LACOE stating that the county could place a financial adviser in the district. That person would then be given the power to take over the district’s finances and override board decisions if the district does not make the necessary cuts to meet its financial obligations.
In that letter, Candi Clark, chief financial officer for LACOE, states that the district is unable to meet its basic financial obligations.
Over the past three years, “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,” Clark wrote.
LACOE gave the district a negative certification which means county projections show that the district will not be able to meet its pending financial obligations.
Pasadena and Inglewood are the only two school districts in LA County currently with a negative certification, according to LACOE.
The school board on Feb. 8 voted to eliminate 139 full-time employees — 87 of those positions held by teachers.
The cuts also project 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 and cost reductions.
Fifty teachers will take voluntary retirement this year, with only half scheduled to be replaced, McDonald added, which will create $8.5 million in savings over the next five years.
Ongoing cuts also include $9 million combined in athletic, health, after-school, arts and music programs.
“We’re doing everything we can to make the necessary cuts,” McDonald said. “We’re hoping that with the support of the community we’ll continue to improve even in the face of this grim fiscal reality.”
Since 2013, the district has been plagued by debt due to rising pension costs which have increased by $42 million since that time and are expected to continue to increase until 2020.
At last Thursday’s meeting, McDonald said a district committee has met for several months and generated a report that could be presented to the school board next month regarding school closures. The school board will decide how to proceed after reviewing the recommendations.
Council members expressed interest in acquiring district property and using it to create housing to help offset the city’s fiscal deficit.
Kennedy asked if the city could get a right of first refusal on any district property that ended up on the market, but district officials were unsure if the arrangement could be made. Currently, schools that are no longer being used must first be offered to a charter school, and after that to a nonprofit organization.
Kennedy also urged McDonald to meet with former superintendents to discuss the district’s fiscal issues.
“We have several former superintendents living in Pasadena,” Kennedy said. “You might want to assemble a group to provide you a sounding board at the very least. Ray Cortines and Vera Vignes live in the area.”
Mayor Terry Tornek said the fiscal situation in the district resembles the challenges currently faced by the city.
“It’s eerily familiar to some of the points we’ve made about our fiscal situation,” said Tornek. “You could transpose some of those paragraphs with very little modification. It’s striking that the pension cost percentage, the total size of the budget and the total number of employees there really are close relationships between what the school district is confronted with and what the city is confronted with. The difference is the revenue side of the equation for the school district is much more challenging because it is dependent on how the governor and the Legislature fund the various school districts.”
In January, Tornek called for a three-quarter cent sales tax increase to help the city raise $20 million. A third of that money would go to the school district.
Tornek said he hoped the council would discuss the tax again soon, but said that right now it would be no benefit to the school district.
“Council has not taken action on that but I anticipate we will have further discussion on that soon,” Tornek said. “Clearly you cannot rely on that in terms of your projections for this coming year.”