In Partnership with 74

Good news on chronic absences and the budget, despite a ‘structural deficit’ — a wrap-up of board action

Mike Szymanski | September 18, 2017

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Board members Ref Rodriguez, left, and Scott Schmerelson, right, with special guests at last Tuesday’s board meeting.

This Tuesday, the school board will meet in a non-voting session, called the Committee of the Whole. It will be the first meeting of the board since last week’s revelations of felony charges against school board President Ref Rodriguez.

That news came just after last Tuesday’s board meeting, the second that Rodriguez presided over as president — and which he held to a tight four hours.

At the meeting, which started off with a surprise announcement from Superintendent Michelle King on the district’s new record graduation rate, a budget report was given that reminded board members of the ongoing “structural deficit.”

Other issues covered included chronic absenteeism rates and charter school reauthorization — including a restructuring of Celerity schools, which are under federal investigation.

Some good budget news came up from a report by Chief Financial Officer Scott Price including updates in the previous budget report. A hiring freeze that was held last year saved $37 million, and $79 million was saved due to 30 percent cuts in staff reductions.

Also, Price reported:

  • Just two weeks prior there had been a 4.66 percent reserve in the budget, which is now a 9.6 percent reserve.
  • Liabilities were set aside in the amount of $25 million, but they didn’t need to spend it.
  • A $50 million cafeteria deficit was resolved.
  • There was a $7 million decrease in power utility costs because the weather has been better and required less air conditioning.

Yet, even with the improvements, the longterm debts of the district, including health benefits, special education costs, and other fixed costs will continue to drain the budget. As noted in years past, the structural deficit still exists and there could be a big budget deficit looming in the 2018-19 school year, Price said. So far, a $164 million surplus was applied, reducing the need for carryover funds from $250 million to a little more than $100 million, he said.

Board member Nick Melvoin called for more transparency and understanding of the budget, and King said there will be a budget report now every two months to let the public know more regularly where the district stands.

Student Destiny Nguyen talked about how the district helped her get back to school.

Decrease in chronic attendance

The district is focusing on increasing attendance rates in chronically absent populations. Attendance rates for students released from juvenile centers or camps increased 10 percentage points over two years from 71 percent in 2014-15 to 81 percent in 2016-2017, according to Erika Torres, the executive director of the Student Health and Human Services division.

Her report also stated that the district helped 7,400 foster youth improve their attendance through case management and advocacy, Torres said.

High schools saw an improvement of 9.3 percent in the rate of chronic absences, which are students who miss more than 15 days of schools a year. Incarcerated youth dropped out at higher rates, and the district focused on them and saw that drop-out rates drastically decreased if students were reengaged immediately once they are released, Torres said.

Destiny Nguyen was a student who talked about getting into trouble and living in transitional housing and dropping out of school. “I could have smoked, I could have drank, and I chose not to,” said the student, who worked at a Chinese restaurant for 72 hours a week and the decided to come back to get her high school diploma.

Other noted attendance improvements included:

  • Pilot programs have helped improve attendance at schools, with special emphasis on foster youth and students returning from juvenile hall.
  • The district is working with more than 50 philanthropic and educational groups helping with attendance issues.
  • Sept. 14 was the ninth annual Recovery Day when administrators made phone calls and home visits to convince students to come back to school. Since the program began, they have convinced 5,200 students to return to school, Torres said.

Celerity revamp

The district approved a material revision of the management companies of Celerity Education Global and took away Celerity Global as a management agency.

Grace Canada, who founded the Celerity charter schools, spoke to the school board along with other administrators and parents involved with the charter institution that had two schools rejected in the past by LA Unified and has four schools remaining under the district overbite.

“I want to convey the big picture, that this is a new day at Celerity,” Canada Said. “I plan to step aside as CEO and let new leadership take over. I want the schools to run smoothly.”

A few parents, a student, and administrators spoke about Celerity and talked about the improvements at the schools.

Board member Scott Schmerelson said he was confident that the remedy would correct some of the concerns that the district had about the school’s management.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the Celerity revisions.

The California Board of Education also approved the material revisions and increased enrollment for early grades for some schools.

According to a statement, “By approving the material revisions for Celerity Himalia and Rolas charters, our 6th-8th graders can start school on Monday. CEG Board is pleased that LAUSD and now the State Board of Education have looked favorably on the significant changes we’ve made. We terminated our corporate ties to Global Development and CEG will not receive any services from Global or a Global affiliate by October 1.  We are proud of our teaching staff and administration who have spent countless hours pursuing the very best for our school community.”

ICEF school with CEO Parker Hudnut, far right.

ICEF charter renewals

Four independent charter schools run by the Inner City Educational Foundation Public Schools were approved for their five-year renewal, but a few board members were still concerned about low test scores at the schools, and a lack of a plan to help English learners. The ICEF prompted board member George McKenna to read a commentary about not renewing under-performing charter schools.

Board member Richard Vladovic noted that some of the redesignation of English learner students was below the district’s level, and said it was unacceptable. Board member Kelly Gonez noted that the students showed some improvements overall, and board member Monica Garcia said the schools have made great strides.

But parent and former candidate for school board Carl Petersen said that the ICEF schools have failed in their mission and have a high suspension rate and lack enough behavioral support.

ICEF CEO Parker Hudnut said after the vote favored all the schools that he knew some improvements need to be made, and there are specific programs to also help the teachers with support. He said they have coaches for the teachers, and also workshops for reading, writing, and math focuses. “We also know we have specific issues at some of the schools and we are working very directly to improve those situations,” Hudnut said.

The board meeting actions, reports, and detailed materials, as well as a recording of the meeting, is available on the district’s website, and the next scheduled meeting is Oct. 3.


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