Angry parents and students packed a Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education meeting last week to oppose a plan that would close three schools and decimate programs.
Under the current plan, Cleveland and Franklin elementary schools, along with Wilson Middle School, would be closed. The district would save almost $2 million a year if all three schools were shuttered.
“We can no longer afford to maintain smaller schools,” said Superintendent Brian McDonald. “Cuts are painful and they will impact every sector of our budget. However, the board and management team are committed to making cuts as far away from our core instructional programs as possible. Everything is on the table but nothing is final yet. We are actively seeking input and suggestions from all stakeholders, including staff and parents, as we make decisions in the best interests of all of our students.”
Only 99 students currently attend Cleveland, which has seen a 46 percent decrease in its student population since 2016, according to a district report.
Franklin Elementary School only has 183 pupils due to a 25 percent decrease. Wilson’s population has decreased 15 percent, over the same time period and has 485 students.
The district is working to close a $10 million budget gap, brought on largely by declining enrollment.
Sports programs would be shut down at Blair High School and the Blair Vikings would only play intra-campus contests at Blair High School. The school’s International Baccalaureate program and music program would also face massive cuts.
Blair has 532 students. The proposal would change the athletic program to intermural competition, eliminating competition against other schools and pairing off Blair teams against other students on campus.
“This is not sufficient to maintain a comprehensive CIF athletic program,” according to the district’s financial stability plan options.
Blair’s recently ended a 32-game losing streak in football.
“When I came here I thought I could build something and I will do it for free with my staff,” said Football Coach Erick Pineda. “The only thing I ask is that you give these kids the opportunity to finish what they started.”
About fifty-one percent of the high school students at Blair High School take part in the school’s athletic sports programs. Trustee Scott Phelps said cuts to Blair’s program were not likely.
“It was an idea that staff had,” Phelps told the Pasadena Weekly via email. “Not a savings, so it is unlikely. We’ll see. The reduction discussions will continue and be submitted formally with a county-required Dec 15 first interim budget. We will have a better answer by then.”
The district is required to have at least a $3 million reserve for the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years when the December budget is submitted.
Last year, about 500 students left the district, which has been hampered by increasing housing costs. The decrease in enrollment will cost the district about $5.4 million in state funding by 2020-21.
“If budget shortfalls are due to a decline in enrollment, then lets discuss the decline in enrollment,” said Tina Fredericks, who leads the Democrats of Pasadena Foothills. “If it’s due to competition from private schools, then let’s invest in really promoting our schools. If the cause is affordable housing, then let’s put pressure on the Pasadena City Council and the mayor. Deciding what to cut is not a choice. You are asking us to chop off an arm or a leg. This is a non-choice.”
District officials have blamed decreasing enrollment 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.
To make matters worse, as housing prices and apartment rents increase in Pasadena, many young families and lower income families have moved east toward the Inland Empire where they can afford homes. Older residents whose children are out of the house are staying in their homes, making home inventory low and contributing to the rising costs.
Earlier this year, the board supported a rent control initiative that would have capped rent hikes, but organizers failed to gather the necessary signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot.
Organizers of Proposition 10, which would repeal state ordinances and clear the way for cities to enact rent control laws, are being badly outspent and the proposition appears to be headed for defeat at the Nov. 6 election.
Finally, the state has mandated increases to retirement contributions. Health benefits are likely to increase over the next three years beyond the district’s projections due to the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act.
The contribution taken from PUSD’s general unrestricted budget for needed special education services over the last five years was $147 million. The district’s contribution is likely to go up without an increase in funding from the federal government.
Earlier this year, officials with the Los Angeles County Officer of Education (LACOE) informed the board that the district was in danger of becoming insolvent and could be taken over by the county.
According to LACOE Chief Financial Officer Candi Clark, the district not only failed to implement expenditure reductions for three years, but also committed to ongoing expenditures, “placing the district in immediate risk of becoming insolvent.”
LACOE is calling for cuts to special education, an increase in the district’s insurance fund workers’ compensation program, and close monitoring of enrollment trends. School funding by the state is predicated on student daily average attendance, with funding cuts corresponding to steep and ongoing reductions in the district’s student population.
Earlier this year, the board of education voted to eliminate 139 full-time employees — 87 of those positions held by teachers — to close a $6.9 million gap via current year reductions and revenue increases. The board cut another $14.2 million in reductions for the 2018-19 school year beginning in September.
The district could receive about $7 million annually if voters pass a three-quarter cent tax sales tax in the November election. However, even if that tax measure passes the money won’t be available to the district in time to stave off the current budgetary crisis.
“We are facing some very difficult budgetary decisions in the immediate future,” said McDonald. “But I know that the strong and resilient community of Pasadena Unified will come together to make the best possible decisions to strengthen and build on this success.”