Donald Brann has a big task ahead of him.
The new state-appointed trustee for the fiscally failing Inglewood Unified School District has to turn around an alarming deficit caused by years of state budget cuts and the loss of a third of the student body to gentrification and student flight to charter schools. And time is not his friend.
“This is the mother of all challenges,” said Brann, who was hired in July. “When I got this job, people said you’ll need to be a cross between Superman, Lone Ranger and the Pope to be able to be successful here.”
Millions of dollars in debt and with no hope of making ends meet, the school district asked the California Department of Education to take it over a year ago. The state agreed and gave the district a $55 million loan.
The district burned through $10 million the first year. It expects to spend another $16 million this year. Not only will the district have to come up with enough money to meet its obligations, but also it has to start paying off the loan within a year.
Previous school district leaders slashed hundreds of jobs and closed programs. Inglewood Unified can’t withstand more cuts, Brann said, so his strategy is to find a way to bring in more cash.
“My focus is on the revenue side of the budget – trying to build enrollment, connect with philanthropists, grants, foundations, and bring money in, dwelling on that rather than on making cuts,” he said.
For now, Brann just wants to stop the loss of enrollment, he said. The loans will carry the district through.
But finding a permanent solution is a real challenge.
He can’t turn around the gentrification that’s led many families to move out of urban neighborhoods. And Inglewood Unified has not attracted philanthropists the way L.A. Unified has.
Then there are the nearly dozen Inglewood-area charters schools that have been taking students and the state funds that follow them. They now make up 17 percent of the district's enrollment.
ICEF Inglewood Elementary Charter Academy is a good example. Its enrollment shot up 70 percent since it opened in 2008.
“The advice I’d give to the school district is to make sure our young students start off knowing about pursuing a higher education and steering them in the direction of college and go to university,” said Ife Sherman, a parent who was picking up her five-year-old from kindergarten at ICEF one recent afternoon.
Sherman is African-American, and so are most of the families flocking to Inglewood’s charters. Brann said he wasn’t aware of that. He said his strategy will be to focus on hiring more Spanish-speaking staff to better serve the district’s mostly Latino students.
Despite a demographic shift to a Latino majority, African-Americans are more politically powerful in the city. They’re also the loudest voices calling for school reform.
“Number one, people would just like to see Inglewood be back where it used to be. Inglewood used to be considered one of the best school districts in the area,” said retiree Joe Bowers.
Bowers and Pastor Robert Douglas formed the Equity in Education Coalition to push for change. They met at Douglas’s Jacob’s Ladder Apostolic Church. Douglas said there’s a lot riding on whether the state-appointed trustee can turn the school district around.
“If our children cannot read basic English or Spanish, how can they read the Bible?” he said.
Brann said he's up for the task. He boasts of turning around the smaller, Wiseburn School District in neighboring Hawthorne.
He calls himself a benevolent dictator and wears a gold-colored pin with the word "superintendent" over the Superman logo.
But he said the turnaround won't happen overnight. It will take years.
He's the third trustee installed by the state since last year. It removed the first one within a few months and had an interim in place until Brann came aboard. The state gave him a one-year contract. He said he wants to stay on until the work is done, though.
On the first day of school this year, he went around visiting a smattering of schools, unannounced. Principal Angela Fajardo at Beulah Payne Elementary School called the students and staff into an impromptu assembly and introduced him as “one of our great leaders.”
He graciously took the podium — he wasn't expecting this — and said a few words of encouragement to hundreds of kids in school uniforms.
"You look good, you look professional and you understand that this is the work you have in front of you – is to do your best, listen to your teacher and the other people here to help you."