Inglewood Unified School Board’s authority is stripped, its contract-granting days are temporarily on hold, its decisions are null and void and its suggestions are advice-only. And yet, candidates have thrown their hats into the General Municipal Election race for school board seats 2 and 3 on April 2.
Two-term incumbent, Arnold Butler, is running unopposed for seat 1. Incumbent Trina Williams resigned seat 2 in January, leaving candidates Carliss Richardson-McGhee and Mariana Prado on the ballot. Recently, Prado withdrew.
In the race for seat 3, incumbent Alena Giardina is not seeking a second term. This leaves Margaret Richards-Bowers as the sole candidate since LaDeirdre Wilson has also withdrawn from the race.
The state took over the Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD) in September after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 533 approving a $55 million emergency loan to IUSD with stipulations, one of which called for the resignation of then-Superintendent Gary McHenry. Kent Taylor was appointed administrator to take over as superintendent and school board.
“On the surface, a state-run district looks like a lost cause, but it isn’t,” says current school board member Butler. “Our goal over the next four years is to show the state we can regain financial solvency.
Local control will be restored, and since this will be my last term I want to be a part of it.
“Our district was ravaged by a lack of funds. Many districts were teetering. We had spiraling (employee) healthcare costs, older facilities needing upkeep and low student enrollments brought us to the brink.
Charter schools have hurt us tremendously. The state owed us $30 million in late payments, if they had paid us what they owed, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. It put us in a bad situation.
“Last year, our cash flow projections indicated we wouldn’t meet payroll and expenses at the first of the year. That’s why we took the loan. I think the governor now realizes that minority school districts require more funding–ESL, special education, drug babies, and mothers who had substandard prenatal care have children with growth and developmental problems. These kids require occupational therapists and psychologists. How do we meet these needs? Everything takes money.
“I’m a retired educator. I’ve served as a principal, vice principal, and chief of staff for Inglewood. I’m running unopposed, hopefully, because people feel I’m doing such an outstanding job that no one feels I need to be challenged. I’ll stack my credentials up against anyone,” said Butler.
With a state administrator in place, the five-member school board serves as advisers.
“It’s a shame Butler is running unopposed,” said Peter Somberg, president of the Inglewood Teacher’s Association (ITA). “I think it’s because the school board has lost its power and decision-making authority.
“In their advisory capacity, they no longer set policy, award contracts or spend time spouting their philosophy. It’s been two decades of corruption and cronyism.
“In 1999, the Measure K bond was issued for $131 million, but grew to $180-190 million. And those contracts were meted out to friends. The public was disgusted with how it was handled and with the cost overruns. Those who run for a seat on the board now are those who want to do the right thing and help their community,” added Somberg.
Recently, residents passed Measure GG with a 83 percent approval rating. The $90 million and matching state grant of $20 million will improve Inglewood’s quality of education and conditions at its schools.
Margaret Richards-Bowers was a member of Citizens for Inglewood Excellence in Education, a group of local of volunteers formed to ensure the successful passage of Measure GG–a bond measure specifically intended to improve school facilities and bring technology to the classrooms.
“Kids drinking from a rusty fountain or walking into a nasty bathroom tells them we don’t care about them. We can and must do better. We have to be their advocates,” said Richards-Bowers.
“Yes, the fact is, we have a state-run district and the board has no authority. We are still the interface between the public and the district. I’m an optimist. Things will get better. I don’t believe financial solvency will happen overnight, but it isn’t all doom and gloom either.”
Richards-Bowers continued, “To improve the school district, we have to form partnerships with the business community. The whole village is responsible for the children. There are good things happening in our community. The state’s Academic Performance Index growth target is 800 points. Our students are scoring over 800. And I read of an Inglewood High School student who matriculated to Harvard University. That’s great, but we only hear when things aren’t right.
“Of course, there are more problems in our high schools because of peer pressure,” Richards-Bowers notes. “By getting more parents involved we can improve this. We have to change our culture. We must expect our kids to do well. That should start early. Each generation should be better than the one before it.
“If we want them to be scientists, we have to teach them math, science and technology to make them competitive. The kids must move along with that progress. And our teachers are an important component, too. We can’t just throw a bunch of computers in their classrooms without investing in their professional development as well.”
The emergency loan provided the school district with cash, but by no means did it solve their fiscal challenges. To regain local control, the office of Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) has outlined stringent components that must be met.
“Returning to fiscal solvency is a daunting task. It’s like a cocktail of offering educational programs that attract new students, communicating with parents to bring their kids back and building up their faith in a state-run district. I keep hearing from school board members that local control can return in two to three years. And I keep explaining our budget problems, but, I don’t know if they hear me,” said LaTanya Kirk-Carter, interim state administrator, who replaced Taylor.
Taylor was forced to resign after making an agreement with ITA in December. Today, the validity of that agreement is still in dispute between the state and ITA.
Another challenge is between the district and the California Professional Employees. This is the union that represents support staff at schools.
According to one union representative, the custodians, instructional aides, school police, office, food service, and maintenance workers have less protections than teachers, even though schools cannot operate without them. “I’m just waiting for the next shoe to drop. I heard they’re laying off 40 teachers and our people are expecting cuts too,” said Christopher Graeber, field representative for local union 2345. “It’s no surprise employee morale is at zero. Obviously, we don’t want the district to go down, and we’ve made concessions. We represent 550 support staff of which 250 are part-timers working for $10 an hour with no health benefits. They can’t balance their budget on our backs, but we’re constant targets. No one has proposed any real solutions, only cuts. I thought when the state took over, they would use their vast resources and provide us with expertise like pointing us to a successful district in the Bay Area and say lets try this.
“But no, nothing besides cuts and more cuts. Being short-staffed creates other problems like cleanliness and safety issues. There’s even discussions of replacing school security with the Inglewood City Police department. We don’t want that. They don’t have the best reputation. And with what happened in Connecticut, not even elementary schools are safe,” continued Graeber.
According to Kirk-Carter, who runs the district and functions as the school board, in the early 1990s enrollment was nearly 19,000 students, but that number has fallen to 11, 702. As enrollment dropped the board’s spending level should have decreased as well. When they began cutting it was too little, too late,” Kirk-Carter said.
“What has happened to our greatness? It has eroded over the last 11 years?” asked Carliss Richardson-McGhee, Ph.D. “Why aren’t we solvent? Why did we become so dysfunctional? I want to know why we’ve flat-lined. We’ve lost students, money and projects weren’t completed on time. Back then, even though we paid more in taxes everyone wanted to live in our ZIP code because the education was first-rate.
“Now, the state is here,” Richardson-McGhee said. “They won’t be here forever; they want to fix the problems and move on. In the meantime, the board’s job is to help our kids be the best people and future employees they can be. It our responsibility to prepare them to live and work in a global economy.
“I find it absurd that we wait until they’re in high school to teach them a second language. Non-Spanish speaking prospective employees will be opted out. Kids in other countries learn at least two languages, our mono-language culture puts our kids at a disadvantage. We’ve got to do better and why not, our kids are more than capable.
“I worked as a teacher in East Los Angeles. And served as director for the United Negro College Fund and raised millions of dollars for the organization. Last election, I ran for a board seat, and I’m back to win it this time around,” said Richardson-McGhee.
For the newly elected board members, if they can gather the village behind them their powerlessness may lead to a power of advocacy for Inglewood students.