Executive worries about schools 'going off the cliff'

Larry Vanden Bos, a member of the Palos Verdes school board, values education and says recent funding cuts convinced him to support Gov. Brown's and Molly Munger's measures.

Larry Vanden Bos has studied two November ballot propositions that will cost him money if they pass, and he's made up his mind on how he's going to vote for Propositions 30 and 38.

Yes, on both of them.

One is Prop. 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-increase proposal, which would raise about $6 billion, mostly for K-12 public schools, colleges and universities. The other is Prop. 38, civil rights attorney Molly Munger's tax-increase proposal to raise about $10 billion, mostly for K-12 schools.

I met Vanden Bos this month on a visit to Palos Verdes, and when I learned that he's a member of the Palos Verdes Unified School District board, we started talking about the state's ongoing school budget bloodletting. I told him my wife works long hours organizing parental support for our neighborhood public school and raising money to pay for jobs and services that have been eliminated.

Vanden Bos gave a knowing nod and talked about how his school district was making do with less, even though residents of the relatively affluent peninsula community have written checks to cover some of the losses. About 98% of the district's grads go on to college, and test scores are going up — for now — despite the cuts.

I wanted to hear more about his perspective because I often hear from grumps who don't seem to care that California, no matter how you look at the numbers, ranks near the bottom among states in spending per pupil. It's hard to shake them of their conviction that any additional funding would go straight down a rat hole or into someone's pension fund.

Vanden Bos and I met at his office in Vernon, where he's vice president of a food processing company. On the wall were photos of the youth athletic teams he's coached, and he said he was asked to run for school board five years ago because he's known as a community-oriented guy.

As a kid, Vanden Bos attended Rolling Hills High — now known as Peninsula High — and all three of his children have now graduated from the same school. So he no longer has a direct stake, but when he was asked to run, he said OK. At the time, he didn't see what was coming.

In 2008, his rookie season, "the first mid-year cuts came. It was the first shot across the bow."

The first loss was manageable, amounting to $150 less in state funding for each of the district's 11,800 students. Since then, said Vanden Bos, additional slashing has meant the Palos Verdes district now has $578 less per pupil than it did five years ago — a total loss of $6.7 million.

When I asked how the district has managed, he held up a full-page list of what's been cut.

"We partnered with teachers and certified staff, and teachers have not had a cost-of-living increase since I've been on the board. They now have five furlough days, and on the certified staff, we've eliminated some janitors. We now have one librarian for the entire district, and that's 17 schools."

Shameful as that sounds, Vanden Bos wasn't done going through his list.

"We lost all the instructional assistants in every school, library aides, tech aides … and 15 special-ed assistants…We had a robust Chinese-language program, and last year, it went away.... We lost elementary-school Spanish at a couple of schools, while some are still funded with PTA money."

Vanden Bos said the district has had to eliminate 77 teaching positions in five years, and class sizes have grown. About 60% of the athletic funding has been eliminated, with parents encouraged to donate as much as $1,000 to defray the losses. And the district is dipping into its reserve fund to make ends meet. All of this is happening despite the bump from a voter-approved parcel tax.

And what happens if the Brown and Munger propositions go down in flames?

"We're talking about going off the cliff, not just in our district, but every district in California," said Vanden Bos, who projects that another $457 per student will be lost in Palos Verdes, and the list of suggested cuts "is frightening."

Elementary schools will share principals, music and arts will be on the chopping block, sports funding may be eliminated, some building maintenance will be discontinued and class sizes will increase again.

And of course, many schools don't have parent bodies like parents in Palos Verdes who have money to donate.

Vanden Bos isn't thrilled with his ballot choices, saying that government by initiative is out of control, and neither Brown nor Munger address the structural revenue problems in California. But he'll cast his yes votes on each, hoping at least one gets the necessary majority.

He favors Brown's proposal, which would add a quarter cent to the sales tax and raise income taxes for the wealthiest Californians, because it would help stop the bleeding in higher education, too. Munger's proposal would raise income taxes across the board, using a progressive formula, and fund only K-12.

Vanden Bos said elected officials have made lots of mistakes over the years, and special interests have seldom made the greater public good their top priority.

"But if I'm looking at this building we're in, and I'm trying to hire employees with proper training and skills, they've got to be educated." It's going to "cost me a lot of money" if 30 or 38 pass, said Vanden Bos, "but I value education, and until the state has a better way of funding it, I just have to pay a little more."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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