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In Inglewood, a sparkling new campus and looming bankruptcy

When Johnny Young looks at La Tijera School, he sees more than the gleaming new facade of steel and stucco, the technology lab outfitted with 36 desktop computers, the fitness center with spinning cycles, treadmills and weights.

The Inglewood school board president sees salvation for his beleaguered district, the most financially precarious in California.

Socked by state funding cuts and declining enrollment, the Inglewood Unified School District is expected to go broke by May. Inglewood is one of seven school districts in the state that projects red ink through next year and is closest to the brink of bankruptcy, according to state fiscal management officials who work with troubled schools.

Without quick action, the Los Angeles County education office recently wrote, there is a "strong potential" that the state will have to bail out Inglewood with an emergency loan. That would trigger the California Department of Education to fire the superintendent, sideline the school board and take over district management until the loan is repaid, which could take 20 years.

But Young is confident that such drastic measures won't happen, and projects like the new La Tijera School are one reason why. He predicted that the $24-million state-of-the-art campus that opened in January, paid for with a construction bond, will attract hundreds of new students. And new magnet programs and publicity drives at other schools should bring in even more, he said. More students means more state funding — about $5,200 per pupil.

"We are very optimistic we will come out of this and avoid a state takeover," Young said.

But a long road of hurdles lies ahead.

Estela Ponce reflects on one of the district's biggest challenges. Like hundreds of other parents, Ponce moved her three children from Inglewood schools to charter campuses.

She said her two older children were not being prepared for college; her daughter, now a senior, was getting A's at Inglewood High School but scoring below basic on state standardized tests. When asked why, she said, her daughter blamed poor teachers.

Ponce's third child was attending Centinela Elementary, a district school that surpassed the goal of 800 on state standardized tests last year. But she put him in a charter last fall after his highly regarded second-grade teacher was moved to another grade. Ponce said too many teachers at Centinela couldn't control their students and set low academic standards

"They don't provide the education my child deserves," she said.

Inglewood Unified School District Supt. Gary McHenry noted, however, that it was good teachers at Centinela who helped students boost the school's test scores by 90 points in the last three years. Centinela parent Ana Faenz said the school principal helps tutor her third-grade daughter twice a week after school, leading to progress.

Scores have slowly improved districtwide as well. But only six of 18 campuses hit the 800 goal on state exams last year, all elementary schools. At the district's two high schools, only one-third of students were proficient in English and math.

Such academic performance, demographic trends toward fewer children and a recession that has pushed younger families to more affordable neighborhoods are believed to be major factors behind Inglewood's steady loss of students.

Since 2005, the district's enrollment has dropped by nearly 3,000 students, to 12,500. That includes a loss of 1,000 students this year from last, one-third of whom moved to charter schools, McHenry said. The declining enrollment will cost Inglewood more than $5 million in state funds next year unless it can lure back students.

District officials have asked each school to recruit at least 100 new students. And McHenry said district staffers plan to investigate why families are leaving and look at ways to meet their needs, such as child care or dual-language classes.

School board member Arnold Butler said Inglewood could also get a powerful new tool to retain students if state officials approve a bill that would allow financially troubled school districts to reject charter school applications. Similar legislation was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

More than 2,300 students attend eight charter schools in Inglewood; Butler said the school board approved the charter applications because it had no grounds to reject them under existing law.

Charters are publicly funded but independently run campuses that are mostly non-union. Critics have charged that they take motivated families with higher-performing students from traditional schools.

Even if parents are brought back to Inglewood schools, the district still faces disillusioned teachers.

The Inglewood teachers union recently voted to support a state takeover. Union President Peter Somberg said the district wastes too much money on outside consultants, laid off 150 teachers last year and hiked class sizes to some of the largest in the state. Kindergarten classes, for instance, have ballooned to 32 students today, from 20 a few years ago.

"Teachers across the district do not have the confidence that the district and board put kids' interest ahead of their own," said Aisha Blanchard-Young, a union official and kindergarten teacher at Bennett-Kew Elementary School.

School board President Young, however, blamed the problems on the state. Reeling from its own financial crisis, California has cut funding to schools by 20% over the last three years and, in the case of Inglewood, deferred payment of more than $17 million this year alone. That shortfall caused most of Inglewood's looming deficit, he said.

"There is no mismanagement of funds; there just aren't enough funds," Young said.

To cover the immediate cash crunch, the district has asked every school and department to cut its budget, for a total $7 million, to qualify for a short-term loan. But in a recent letter, the teachers union urged members not to participate in this "horrible plan."

Blanchard-Young said her school has already boosted class sizes, cut teacher aides and rationed paper and copies; she said more cuts would be nearly impossible. "The district is asking us to collaborate on further cutting our own throats," she said. "If they want to do this, let them own it."

At La Tijera, however, Principal Steve Donahue sees glimmers of hope. Already, about 20 new students have enrolled since the campus opened last month, and more families have told him they may return.

Teresa Williams is considering the school. Her daughter was enrolled in another school but wants to play team sports, which are not offered there. Williams said La Tijera's campus looks attractive.

But she voiced the question on the minds of many parents.

"It looks pretty," she said of the school. "But what's the academic plan?"

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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