Cash-strapped LCUSD makes case for donations

There’s only one thing that will reduce class sizes, prevent teacher layoffs and bring aides back to kindergarten classes throughout La Cañada Unified School District — money. That was the predominant message of a town hall meeting Wednesday night organized by the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, which asked local school families to look deep into their hearts and pocketbooks to help make up for the nearly $5 million annually the district will lose as the result of continued spending cuts at the state level.

School board members Joel Peterson and Scott Tracy joined Supt. Jim Stratton and foundation representatives in a packed La Cañada High School auditorium to explain the current economic climate and answer previously e-mailed questions about spending cuts, taxes and what this means to parents and constituents. No live questions from parents were taken.

The seemingly scripted Q&A style discussion was a walk-up to an overall recommendation put forth by the foundation that school families contribute a total of $2,500 per year per household to allow LCUSD to return to the funding levels of 2007-2008, when the services were adequate and class sizes in key areas (grades 1-3 and freshman math and English) were kept at 20:1.

Officials claim this support is crucial to maintaining the reputation of a school district famed for attracting new homebuyers to La Cañada and keeping home values up.

One of those new homebuyers is Sun Chung, who moved to La Cañada from Los Angeles in May to escape the overcrowding and financial struggles within Los Angeles Unified School District. She was not encouraged by what she heard at Tuesday’s meeting.

“For me to be here and listen to this all over again, it’s frustrating,” Chung said. “I can’t imagine my son being in a classroom with 30 students.”

Until recently, LCUSD has been able to avoid furloughs and tenured teacher layoffs, thanks to parent donations and other stop-gap measures. But declining student enrollment, cuts to unrestricted funds from the state and the end of “one-time” funding received in previous years had the district starting the 2011-2012 school year with roughly $4.9 million less than it received in 2007-2008.

Cuts have been made to maintenance and technical support staff and kindergarten aides. Also, the district is not replacing teachers and employees who retire, Stratton explained. “It hasn’t been (just) fat that has been trimmed — it has been essential programs.” Future cuts will come perilously close to teacher layoffs and programmatic cuts that could affect a student’s ability to learn and thrive in the classroom, he added.

The panel explained why potential “magic bullets”—including the lottery, federal stimulus money, grants and becoming a charter district—are insufficient or infeasible solutions to the current problem. La Cañada’s profile as a high-performing district in a wealthier area makes it ineligible for many grants and federal or state programs that earmark dollars for schools that house academically struggling or low-income students.

“The thought that higher property value communities get more funding — that just isn’t true,” Tracy said. “The most impoverished and lowest-performing districts get the most money, and that is not La Cañada’s profile.”

Another misconception is that the district will be saved by the parcel tax passed by voters in 2009. This five-year obligation of $150 per parcel brings in about $900,000 annually. Other small, high-performing and high-income districts have much higher parcel taxes; nearby San Marino receives $1,078 per parcel. Tracy said La Cañada would need to pay $950 per parcel to fill the current budget gap.

Convincing La Cañada property owners to pay higher rates is unlikely — the current tax was passed only after four failed attempts — but foundation representative and local parent Craig Mazin said he’s optimistic that voter opinion will sway when people learn what’s at risk.

“What is a 20% loss in home value compared to a $900 parcel tax? It’s not even close,” Mazin said.

La Cañada parent Jennifer Herzer, who attended the meeting, said most of the parents who attended already contribute to the district. Still, she was hopeful families would step up and help close the budget gap. “The parents who are involved will always be involved," she said. "But if new people hear this message, that’s great.”

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