Commentary: Inglewood Unified School District: the Canary in the Coal Mine

Social Media post at a community hearing in 2016 made by Senator Holly Mitchell

All California school districts will have to submit an interim report in their financial health by December 15.This report compares the school district’s ongoing fiscal condition to what was projected in the budget they submitted in July.

Most schools districts will certify that they will meet their financial obligations for the current and two subsequent fiscal years, but there are a growing number of districts that will assign themselves ‘qualified’ or ‘negative’ certifications. (Districts in good standing give themselves a ‘positive; certification.)

Large school districts, based on their July budgets, that may be on the list of qualified and negative include Los Angeles Unified, Sacramento City Unified, Sweetwater Union, and Oakland Unified.

Districts with negative and qualified certifications must come to terms with the fact that unless they find new revenue sources or better control their expenditures they will have to request a state loan to avoid fiscal insolvency.

According to Assembly Bill 1200, called the Eastin Act, the state of California is required to maintain the financial soundness of public school districts.

Under AB 1200, a district secures a state loan through Legislative action. A state-appointed administrator takes over, the superintendent is fired, and the board of education becomes an advisory body. All decisions about the district’s operational priorities are taken away from the local level until the state loan is paid in full.

State intervention has not been a guarantee that the school district in receivership will be better managed. This has to concern school districts facing this prospect.
Inglewood Unified is currently the only school district in state receivership. Its experience is “the canary in the coal mine” that districts on the verge of accepting a state loan need to look at closely.

Between 2012 and 2017, the state superintendent appointed three administrators, two interim administrators and one trustee. During this period of unstable leadership, the district’s finances and operations did not significantly improve and little progress was made toward being able to return to local control.

In 2015, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee approved an audit concerning the State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s oversight of the Inglewood Unified School District.
A key recommendation the State Auditor made to the Legislature was “any future state emergency funding for a school district appropriated by the Legislature should specifically require the state superintendent to document the selection and appointment process of a state administrator, including the rationales for progressing certain candidates once screened or reasons that particular individuals were ultimately selected to serve as state administrator.”

So far, the Legislature has failed to implement the recommendation put forth by the audit. It’s clear that Inglewood’s progress has suffered because of a lack of stable leadership provided by the State.

A similar experience happening to any other school district in the future is unacceptable.
In 2018, Assembly Bill (AB) 1840 provided financial relief to Inglewood Unified and Oakland Unified as both school districts struggled to balance their budgets and pay off state loans. In that legislation, responsibility for managing a school district under state receivership was removed from CDE and given to the County Office of Education.

The last State Administrator appointed by CDE to lead Inglewood Unified, Dr. Thelma Melendez, recently retired. Under the guidelines of AB 1840, a new County Administrator, Dr. Erika Torres, was announced by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE).
Before her appointment, Torres was acting interim County Administrator and, for about a year, she was the LACOE Deputy Superintendent charged with working with Melendez. So she takes the job already knowing what needs to be prioritized and what resources she will need to succeed in turning around the school district.

This may be the model that should be adopted for future state takeovers. Instead of firing the superintendent of the school district, a reasonable transition period should be observed. Prior to the appointment of Torres, each state administrator had to figure out on their own how they would lead. That process failed to produce satisfactory progress.
It is time for the Legislature — hopefully, during the upcoming session — to craft legislation that will provide better direction on how school districts under state receivership are managed. The future of the students in those districts will be the beneficiaries of the legislation they approve

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