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Pilot college-savings plan established for Cerritos, Roosevelt schools

Select Glendale Unified students will have an opportunity to take advantage of a program meant to encourage saving money for college that was announced during a school board meeting Tuesday — but it stirred some controversy.

Felix Melendez, the district's executive director of secondary education, said the school district and the Glendale Educational Foundation teamed up to form a one-year pilot program for a ScholarShare 529 College Savings plan for students at Cerritos Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School.

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The ScholarShare plan is a state-sponsored program that offers a variety of options, including low-cost, for families of a student to save and invest money for higher education or career training after high school.

Accounts can be opened with as small an investment as $25, and contributions can be made a variety of ways, including electronic transfers, bank automatic drafts or payroll deductions.

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That money is then moved into a portfolio and managed professionally based on factors including risk, the child's age and timeline for post-high school education.

A few school board members — led by Nayiri Nahabedian, board president — sought out a partnership with the foundation.

The foundation, in turn, guaranteed 100 deposits of $100 for qualifying students from Roosevelt and Cerritos, who will have accounts opened on their behalf. The money, though, was not split evenly as 75 scholarships have been set aside for Roosevelt and 25 for Cerritos.

"I really want to send my heartfelt gratitude to the Glendale Education Foundation for stepping up and being a continued partner," Nahabedian said.

There are a few eligibility requirements for the ScholarShare program.

The parent or legal guardian must have a Social Security number or federal identification number and must be a resident of California. The family household annual income must be less than $75,000; the student needs to be 14 years old or younger on Dec. 31; the student must have a Social Security number or federal ID number; and the student should not already have a ScholarShare account.

Though a meeting with parents was held at Roosevelt on Jan. 25 and at Cerritos on Tuesday, Melendez acknowledged that neither school has hit its target number.

Melendez said the schools were selected for the pilot program based on need.

"It was our intent to focus on Roosevelt and Cerritos due to their higher percentage of socially-economically disadvantaged students and students whose family may have not envisioned their students going to college," he said.

Melendez pointed to the district's free/reduced lunch program as the statistic used to justify need.

The latest district average showed that 54.8% of students qualified for the nutritional program created for low-income students. According to Melendez, Roosevelt's rate was 81.3% and the rate at Cerritos was 84.8%.

Melendez said if Cerritos and Roosevelt didn't sign up 100 students combined, then other district schools may be open to foundation funds and potential state-matching money.

The school district, at the behest of Supt. Winfred Roberson Jr., worked briskly on the plan so students would also be eligible for up to $200 of state-matching funds, which are granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

"The administration moved up quickly on the pilot as there was a time frame or urgency to secure funds from the state, as the funds were limited," Roberson said.

The urgency of the process both irritated and alarmed longtime board member Greg Krikorian.

The last time the board met to discuss the pilot program was Nov. 28 as an information item. Krikorian was not present because he was attending a California School Board Assn. meeting in San Diego.

Again on Tuesday, the ScholarShare update was listed as an information item and not an action item, meaning the board did not seek a vote.

"I've been serving on this board for 18 years and I've never experienced anything like this before in my life and in my tenure on the board of education," Krikorian said during the meeting. "When we get elected to the board of education, we, as a body, the five of us, are supposed to give input on issues."

He added, "When there's an information item, information is presented to the board. The board can present questions like, 'hey, why are we picking the most transit area of our community?' A lot of those people who live in the Cerritos and Roosevelt area don't matriculate through all four grades of our schools. The majority of them actually move. They don't stay in our school area."

Krikorian questioned that if time sensitivity was an issue, why didn't the board meet for more discussion or action at the two regularly scheduled meetings on Dec. 12 on Jan. 16.

"To my knowledge, unless I missed something, there was never a vote on this project moving forward," said Krikorian, who had none of the six schools in his district selected for the pilot program. "Personally, as a board member who was elected to this seat numerous times, I'm very disheartened by this process."

Glendale Unified and Glendale Community College used a district-based voting system for the first time during an election in April last year. Previously, elections were conducted on an at-large basis, where candidates were elected no matter where they lived in Glendale Unified.

Krikorian accused Nahabedian, who has seven schools in her district, including Roosevelt, of "railroading the project through without dialogue from board members" before walking out of the meeting while member Shant Sahakian was speaking, only to return after about a minute.

"I live near Cerritos and Roosevelt, and I have a real problem when board members are questioning how committed certain residents are to this city," said Sahakian, who has Cerritos in his district. "Our commitment is, we serve 26,000 students every day that are students at Glendale Unified."

Roberson reminded the board the program was a pilot and may not even be continued next year and took full responsibility for the brevity of the process.

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