Inglewood schools once again face financial uncertainty
The troubled Inglewood school district is once again facing severe financial uncertainty.
The school system was taken over by the state last September when Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation granting $55 million in loans to the district. But officials announced Tuesday that the district had depleted its reserves and used about half of those loans in the first year.
A state review has found that the 14,000-student district will end the current school year with a $17.7-million deficit. Without scaling back, the district will exhaust the remainder of the $55-million loan and other funds next year and will be unable to fund the school year in fall 2014.
“The situation is grim,” said Michelle Plumbtree, chief management analyst with the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team.
But although Inglewood officials held a hearing Tuesday evening on its financial problems, the state released a report showing that school district budget crises have lifted in many other areas. State Supt. Tom Torlakson said that fewer than half as many California districts are in financial jeopardy now as a year ago. That number has dropped from 188 to 92 districts showing serious financial problems.
In Inglewood Unified, officials say budget problems were caused in part by a severe drop in enrollment at district schools. Enrollment has plummeted 28% in the last seven years as the proliferation of charter schools nearby have lured away students, officials said.
Officials expect to reduce the deficit by about $6.6 million through other means, but plan on entering into negotiations with its employee unions in coming months.
They made clear, however, that employees will be affected.
“The employees are not responsible for the problems here, but they’re going to have to share in the solutions here because there’s no place else to go,” said Richard Zeiger, the California Department of Education chief deputy superintendent.
The crowd at the hearing, however, scoffed at that suggestion. “Are you going to pay my mortgage?” shouted one person. Another said: “OK, then, you’re fired.”
About 72% of district expenditures are spent on employee salaries and benefits.
About 60 teachers received pink slips this past year. About 170 classified employees -- those who are not teachers or administrators -- so far have been alerted that their jobs may be in jeopardy and more may be notified in coming months.
The district is offering early retirement to 300 employees -– about 200 teachers and 100 classified and administrative positions –- but have yet to get a clear picture as to how many will take the offer, said La Tanya Kirk-Carter, the district’s interim state administrator.
District officials are asking the teachers union to walk away from an agreement made with the previous state monitor, Kent Taylor, who resigned after the Department of Education learned of that tentative agreement. Taylor, state officials say, had no authority to enter into such an agreement.
Taylor needed prior approval from Torlakson or a designee before the completion of a financial review and plan to bring the district back to solid fiscal health.
The would-be agreement reduces the budget by less than $1 million, not nearly enough to stave off massive cuts to make the difference, said Kirk-Carter.
The union maintains that the agreement and a memorandum of understanding were negotiated in good faith and that union officials were under the impression that Taylor had the authority to enter into them, said Peter Somberg, president of the Inglewood Teachers Assn. He said the union may bring an unfair labor charge against the district.
Pointing to the crowd inside the hearing, Somberg said: “A lot of those people inside would be out of their homes. It’s not sustainable.”
Somberg said he still sees poor spending habits in the district. He also said teachers would like to be part of the solution rather than having to suffer the brunt of furlough days and layoffs.
Before beginning the bargaining process, union officials asked Taylor several times if he did in fact have the power to make collective bargaining deals. He assured the union that he did, Somberg said.
The state, however, has made clear that the agreement is void.
The agreement would have kept current employee health benefits intact and limit the number of furlough days for employees over the next two school years. It also allows parties to resume salary negotiations based on state funding changes in 2013 and 2014, Somberg said.
After years of cuts to programs, layoffs and salary reductions, the contract would give teachers a reprieve from further financial damage in coming years.
Kelly Iwamoto, a fourth-grade teacher at Kelso Elementary School, said that after receiving her pink slip for the third year in a row, she has become somewhat numb to the feeling of having her job on the line. But the fact that the district has seemingly not improved at managing funds angers her.
“Nothing has changed,” she said. “That’s what makes me mad.”
Taylor’s resignation -- and his subsequent, controversial $100,000 buyout -- came two months after he was appointed by Torlakson to lead the school system.
Torlakson then appointed Kirk-Carter as interim state administrator for the district. Nearly six months later, she is still in the position.
Zeiger would not say whether the state would make her permanent but expressed confidence in her. The state does hope to “fill out the team,” Zeiger said, declining to elaborate.
Zeiger said the state has tried luring leaders at other school districts to Inglewood.
“Turns out that is difficult to do,” he said.
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