By Kiara Harris - California Black Media
In Inglewood, a growing number of residents are raising deep concern about state control of local schools.
Are there too many lingering questions and not enough definitive answers on the effects of the state takeover of the Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD)?
Depends on who you ask. But a growing number of residents, along with faith and community leaders, are beginning to believe so. Under the umbrella group Education Equity Coalition, some of those concerned residents were at the State Capitol on July 1 to testify before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC).
The committee considered an audit of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s action to name a state trustee for the Inglewood Unified School District IUSD. The audit request eventually failed.
If it all sounds very complicated, that’s because it is — sometimes dizzyingly so, for parents and others who want to see schools in their community improve. From the perspective of Margaret Richard-Bowers, an Inglewood activist who testified that day, there been enough details released or strong conclusions drawn on the effectiveness of state control of IUSD.
First, a brief history: In 2012, an administrator was named by Supt. Tom Torlakson to assume virtually all power in the school district, with the elected school board virtually relegated to the status of an advisory panel. This set-up came under the terms of an emergency $55 million state loan which dragged the district away from possible insolvency, but left a fog of ill feelings over the disempowering of local officials forced to surrender “all legal rights, duties and powers of the governing board.”
The move was humbling, but not entirely unexpected: it followed years of severe financial challenges and irregularities in the district serving mostly African-American and Latino families.
Still, today, some look at finances and academic outcomes and wonder if state control has been worth it? The turmoil in leadership has certainly not halted. Inglewood is now on its third administrator (or trustee, depending on who is serving) in less than two years, amidst lingering and sizable budget deficits, tough labor negotiations, allegations of unauthorized deal-making and embarrassing headlines.
In a rare show of bipartisanship in Sacramento, Democratic Assemblyman Isadore Hall III and Republican State Sen. Bob Huff both requested that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) approve an audit of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s performance at IUSD. A measure to force the audit failed in committee, with several legislators not bothering to vote at all.
A representative from Superintendent of Public Instruction Torlakson’s office testified before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, saying it would be best if the committee allowed the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to proceed with an already planned review.
That didn’t stop Richard-Bowers — whose encyclopedic study of IUSD financial matters showed, she testified to lawmakers, that state management “cost the IUSD millions in budget savings because it protected teacher’s salaries from necessary reductions to balance the budget.”
Like Bishop Johnny Young, a member of the now-advisory school board, she questions whether the state gave Inglewood officials enough opportunity to bring district finances in line before assuming control.
The elected board had been working closely with FCMAT and believed they were on the road to difficult—but nonetheless steady—financial ground. Would local officials have actually done a better job in the majority-minority district, in which just under 47 percent of students are black or African-American and 46 percent identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino?
“We had a plan to balance the budget by rolling back salaries 15 percent and doing some other things like selling property and consolidating schools,” said Young said in a lengthy telephone interview. “We had a meeting with [FCMAT] around September 2011 and [two members] said we were on the right track. They said that if the state came in, they might make even deeper cuts — up to 20 percent. If we had been allowed to implement our plan, the state would not have been needed.”
Added Richards-Bowers in her testimony: “IUSD was not bankrupt when the [California Department of Education] took over in October 2012. An independent audit certified that about $3 million was in the bank … the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team projected no need to borrow any money from the state fund until March 2013.” As for the state, “it is spending more but educating fewer students than last year,” she insisted, pointing anecdotally to families she says are fleeing the troubled district.
According to Young, there were approximately 12,500 students in IUSD when the state took over. Today: less than 11,000. “Our black and brown kids are being left in unsafe and unkept schools,” he said. “Our enrollment is down [and] parents who can are taking their kids out of the district. In the 41 years of my involvement with IUSD, this is the worse predicament the school district has ever been in.”
The state takeover in Inglewood is not without precedent. Other districts have faced take over. Compton, Oakland and The Vallejo Unified School District have all had a state administrator. One official currently in Vallejo described her recent experience.
Dr. Richard Damelio, appointed in 2004 by former State Supt. Jack O’Connell, “put all the pieces in place for the district to be on better financial standing,” said Dr. Ramona Bishop, Superintendent of the Vallejo Unified School District. “He made sure the board stayed involved. He trained them so that when I came on board in 2011, they were ready to take their power back. I think he was unique. I suggested that he train others who take on this role.”
She added: “However, some things suffered along the way. The main focus of an administrator/trustee is to get the loan paid back, not academics. We had a 50 percent dropout rate and six different superintendents in a 10-year period of time.”
However solutions come in Inglewood, they cannot arrive quickly enough for Rocio Velazquez. A single mother who has lived in the city for 18 years, she sees little to be optimistic about in the schools that her three children — ages 17, 15 and 8 — are bound to attend.
“It’s really bad right now. Everything is getting worse, not better,” she said. “Before at least someone would talk to us, but now no one will talk to us. I would move away if I had the money, but I don’t even have a car right now. Some have already moved. It’s worse than Mexico. I feel very angry, but what can I do? I want something better for the children — not just my own, but in my community. It’s mostly African-American and Latino, and they don’t really care about us.”