A state-of-the-art 70,000 seat football stadium is rising where horses once competed at Hollywood Park. The Forum is fabulous again, a destination for rock concerts. The Los Angeles Clippers want to build an arena to make Inglewood its home. Property values are up.
But at the same time the City of Champions appears to be surging, its classrooms continue to lose their students. Enrollment in the Inglewood Unified School District is down nearly half of what it was 15 years ago and continues to drop significantly. The Inglewood Unified School District remains under state control as its installed leaders try to stabilize their budget, recruit and retain quality teachers and administrators, repair crumbling campuses and improve academic programs.
"In this past year I'm very proud of the progress we've made," said Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, "but I know that and see there is some more work to be accomplished."
Six years after state lawmakers took control of the troubled district to spare it from bankruptcy, an audit shows the district has made some progress, and the district's leaders are optimistic they finally have the district on the right path.
Just Wednesday night, following a year that began with a surprise $8 million shortfall, district officials announced they had achieved a small budget surplus, following an increase in education funding from Sacramento, and cutbacks that included eliminating 41 teaching positions through early retirements, a school closure, asking workers to pay a portion of their health premiums, and other reductions.
Repairs, meanwhile, are underway at decaying campuses across the district, efforts are underway to improve student achievement scores and officials hope their work will entice parents to send their children back to the community’s schools.
"It was incredibly daunting when I got here," said Nora Roque, the district’s executive director of human resources since 2014. "It also was invigorating. To me, it was an opportunity to see big change that I've never experienced."
The problems seemed too huge for anyone to fix. Following years of mismanagement that allowed school buildings to fall into disrepair and budgets to run huge deficits, state lawmakers seized the district from local officials in 2012. Lawmakers allocated $55 million for the district's remake, taking over its administration, which for years had overstated attendance, understated California State Teachers’ Retirement System payments and teacher salary expenses, spent beyond their means and watched parents send their children to school elsewhere.
During the last six years, a revolving door of six state appointed trustees took the job to run the district, hoping to clean up the mess and eventually return it to local control. The latest trustee, Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, who previously led the Pomona and Santa Ana school districts, and worked as a principal advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during the Obama Administration, took the post in August 2017, and immediately discovered the district faced the massive budget shortfall because of a sudden drop in attendance, something she immediately had to address through layoffs, buyouts and cutbacks.
Still, Melendez said in an interview that she felt “very fortunate to come to Inglewood.”
"I see that it is quite a challenge," Melendez said in an interview. "In this past year I'm very proud of the progress we've made, but I know that and see there is some more work to be accomplished."
A recently released audit for the 2017-2018 school year from The Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, found the district has made some improvement across the board from budgeting to building repairs during the last year, but that the district "continues a pattern of significant projected deficit spending" in its 2018-19 and its 2019-20 general fund budgets, something district officials hope they have just turned around.
Most troubling, administrators agree, is the dwindling enrollment, down about 47 percent, or more than 8,300 students since 2003. After about 800 students left the district in the 2016-2017 school year, another 500 students departed in 2017-18. The decline is expected to continue, the report said, with enrollment dropping by 500 students this school year and another 1,000 in the next two years.
The district’s enrollment is “declining at a faster rate than any of its surrounding neighbors,” dropping from a high of nearly 16,000 students in 2005 to about 8,800 in 2017-18, the audit said. The fewer students, the less money comes from the state. Each student is worth about $11,000.
Chris Graeber, an official with the California Professional Employees Union Local 2345, which represents the district's non-teaching employees, said Inglewood's school-age population isn't shrinking. Parents don't want to send their children to Inglewood's schools, opting instead for the rising number of charter schools, he said.
"It's almost automatic they lose 500 kids a year," Graeber said. "Once you are taken over by the state, it's almost like a restaurant with a D in the window. People see the D in the window and say, 'There's charter schools now. We don't need to go there anymore.'"
Graeber, angered when classified and certificated workers were asked to pay for some of their health care premiums, said he still considers the district a "shambles," despite any improvements that have occurred.
"It's almost like going from a D student to a C student," Graeber said. "We are happy we are getting better, but indirectly we don't see a whole lot of progress."
School district administrators disagree. They believe their management, implementing funding for repairs and improving fiscal planning are working.
Construction, they said, is underway since last spring to fix the decrepit conditions in classrooms, restrooms and gyms across the district. In 2014, media reported on the startling conditions on many campuses, including clogged pipes and toilets, holes in roofs, and rats. The audit found that much of the district's facilities are old and in disrepair and go unused because of the shrinking pupil population.
"Sometimes you'd walk into some of our schools and they really were in terrible repair," said Eugenio Villa, the district's chief business official. "When no students were there, they looked abandoned."
In 2012, after the district took a $29 million loan from the California legislature's allocated funds during the state seizure, 86 percent of Inglewood district voters approved a $90 million bond measure to pay for repairing the dilapidated schools.
In the last year, more than $100 million in money made available for facility improvements was implemented, Villa said. Small projects began last spring with major construction underway at several campuses.
Workers have demolished dozens of poorly maintained temporary classrooms, built permanent classrooms, repaired roofs, tackled termite problems, added air conditioning and duct systems, replaced doors and windows, improved restrooms, added accessibility to meet federal requirements for the disabled, and improved technology infrastructure. Issues with old plumbing, sewer lines and utilities still crop up, Villa said.
Students already are utilizing new classrooms, Melendez said.
A new bond measure may be proposed asking the community to approve more money for more repairs, Villa said.
There is still much to overcome, including the district’s scarred reputation, the administrators admit. Although the audit cites some progress, it also points out several areas where attention is needed, including in student achievement scores, which showed minimal improvement.
The report also found the district may be violating the state law regulating contracts and bids because of a lack of training in its purchasing department, and no internal audit committee exists, despite the district's history of fraud and lack of oversight.
Melendez said Inglewood is working to improve its academic programs, which already include its arts and music programs, and hope the district's narrative will change. The district is working with 1,000 community members for feedback on what residents want in their schools and has brought in experts in finance, community relations, facilities and academic achievement to help. They hope that might turn around enrollment.
"I'm hopeful we are on a path to achieving both a fiscally sound and academically sound district," Melendez said. "There is still work to do. We are very positive and excited we are addressing some of these persistent problems."
Top Image: Inglewood Unified School District