How outsiders bolster school budget

John Petersen and his family moved to La Cañada five years ago. He came here, primarily because of the city's great schools. But today he's concerned about those schools, and with the growing class sizes within the La Cañada Unified School District.

Petersen has two children attending Palm Crest Elementary, a first- and third-grader, and another who will enter kindergarten next fall. Two years ago, his eldest child was one of 18 students in a first-grade class that was led by a teacher assisted by an aide. Today, Petersen has a child in a first-grade class of 24 students with teacher, but no aide.

"That is a big, big difference for such young children," Petersen said. "I am concerned about it and I think all district parents should be concerned."

Even though class sizes are larger than before, adding students from outside the LCUSD is a key component to keeping class sizes manageable. That may seem counterintuitive, but it's a fact.

District officials say that classes would be even larger without the out-of-district students. That's because each district receives income from the state based on its student population. So more students mean more funds. The extra funds interdistrict students generate helps LCUSD to remain solvent and means that the district has to do less budget cutting than it otherwise would have to do.

"The misconception is that the cause of the increase in class size is the out-of-district students," said Scott Tracy, vice president of the school board. "The fact of the matter is that without these students, we would be unable to maintain class sizes as they are currently staffed if we had not increased our out-of-district students."

Children whose parents work full time in La Cañada Flintridge can be considered for an interdistrict permit to attend school in La Cañada's public schools. Enrolling these students allows the district to compensate for declining enrollment. La Cañada High School graduated 358 seniors in June; just 157 kindergarteners enrolled in the district's elementary schools for this school year.

La Cañada Unified serves approximately 400 out-of-district students, which make up 9.8% of the district's entire student body and account for the 201 students they lost from last year, according to the district office. Those 400 students combined generate $1,979,524 for the district, as each student generates an average of $4,948.81 annually from the state by regularly showing up in class throughout the year.

"Every child helps to pay for the teachers, the principal and much more," La Cañada school board member Cindy Wilcox said. "We need the children because they all contribute to the reach of [the district's] dynamic education."

Over the coming four years, La Cañada Unified projects its enrollment will drop by 318 students, which is why interdistrict students are so valuable, school board members say.

Nonetheless, Joseph Mealey, a parent of two first-graders at Palm Crest Elementary, said he has seen class sizes grow from 20 to 25 students.

"Last year, test scores at Palm Crest and all the schools were up and very good, but you can't deny that in a couple of years, scores will drop because of the increase in class sizes," Mealey said. "All of our kids are getting one shot at this; and what they are learning in these early grades affects them for the rest of their lives."

Though Mealey's concern is that larger class sizes will become the norm in La Cañada, he sees interdistrict students as part of the solution.

"The problem isn't the interdistrict students, it's that they hired less teachers," Mealey said. "[The district] needs to figure out a way to have enough teachers to maintain smaller classes."

The La Cañada Unified Governing Board strives to keep class sizes down, but with 80% of the district's budget related to employee compensation, it has few places to cut that won't impact the classroom, Tracy said.

"It has been our goal all along to shelter the students, but that's been compromised because of the extent of the state budget cuts," Tracy said.

This year La Cañada Unified is receiving $1,412.54 less per student than it was supposed to receive. That accounts for a $5.6 million drop-off, approximately 17.5% of the district's budget.

Every interdistrict student brings in a needed shot of income, but the district enrolls interdistrict students for more than just money, Wilcox said. It does it to keep LCUSD an all-encompassing district whose schools can offer a wide range of extracurricular activities, Wilcox said.

Petersen said he would like to see the entire community come together and come up with a collective solution for the rise in class sizes. He would like to see everyone in La Cañada start to donate to the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, which in turn gives more than $1 million annually to the district. A large part of those funds go toward keeping class sizes down.

"We have to fight hard to keep our district great," Petersen said. "It's great now and one of the reasons they have been great is because class sizes have been small."

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