District in public plea for money

A La Cañada Unified School District task force made a plea this week for $2,500 annual donations to the local schools from all "stakeholders" until the state budget crisis is over.

The plea came in the form of a guest column written by school-board members Joel Peterson and Scott Tracy that appears in today's Valley Sun.

The task force, formed in October by the school board after it received pressure from parents concerned about over-crowded classrooms, is asking the La Cañada community to help bridge a $6 million gap in LCUSD's budget. The gap has been created by repeated cuts to public education over the past four years by the state Legislature.

The $2,500 donation figure suggested by the task force could increase if Sacramento continues to cut public education funding as expected in January, Tracy said.

The school board has attempted to resolve the multi-million dollar gap on its own. The board has increased class sizes and nearly doubled its number of out-of-district students over the years, but any further cuts would greatly impact the district's educational programming, Tracy said.

"We have one of the lowest administrative ratios in the county. We have judiciously made cuts that have had the least impact on students, but those options are disappearing," said Tracy, adding that he thinks that appealing to the community for donations is the district's last resort.

"We believe everyone has a stake, in one form or another, in our school system," said Joel Peterson, district clerk and co-chair of the task force.

The $2,500 amount was arrived at because there are 2,400 to 2,500 families with school-aged children in La Cañada. One hundred percent participation would repair the gap in the district's budget. The task force also based it on La Cañada's median family-household income of $160,000 to $180,000, Peterson said.

"You're talking about two percent of the average person's household income," Peterson said. "We thought it was something most La Cañada families could realistically do."

Al Restivo, chairman of La Cañada Flintridge's Republican Committee, said he supports the district asking La Cañada families for more money. But he also said he would like to see the district do everything possible to resolve the budgetary crisis on its own before asking the community to dig into its pockets.

"If parents want to contribute to the schools, that's a great idea; but I still think there needs to be some significant cost cutting," said Restivo, a former school-board member in Eastchester, N.Y. "These are bad times and no one in their right mind would argue that point. Just as we homeowners have had to cut our own personal budgets, the schools have got to do the same thing."

The district would most likely have to lay off more staff, since most of its budget is tied up in salaries, Restivo said.

"Don't shave it down to where the schools can't function, but shave it down to where we can pick up some of the budget shortfall," Restivo said. "Six million dollars is out of sight — something has to be done and it has to be done fast. I don't believe all of it can come from the parents, though. A lot of people are struggling right now."

Peterson said he understands many people may feel tapped out between paying the $150 parcel tax and giving to the La Cañada Educational Foundation each year.

"We are all already giving a lot and the economy is making it difficult for all of us," Peterson said. "[The district] does not have control of what is happening at the state level, though, and this is our way of giving control back to us."

Peterson said he realizes everyone's situation is different. Not everyone can afford to donate $2,500, while others could be in a position to give more.

"Give what you can give," Peterson said. "I think it's just impossible for someone to say 'I can't give anything.' This isn't something of our doing, where we mismanaged; this is a crisis and a tragedy happening to our schools that we have no control over."

Peterson said he'd love to see every community resident give whatever he or she can.

"That sends a strong message that we are all in this together — we're all working to keep our school district strong," Peterson said.

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