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Nearly 2 years after state takeover, Inglewood schools still bleeding red ink

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Nearly two years after the school district asked the state for a bailout to stop it from going bankrupt, Inglewood Unified school district is still deep in the red.  It has spent more than half of a $55 million loan from the state to keep shoring up the budget. It ran a $10 million deficit for the school year that's about to end.

Don Brann — a trustee hired by the state to turn the district around — is projecting a $2 million deficit next fiscal year. And that's if he makes unpopular cuts, which county and state officials said should have been made during the recession.

But the proposed cuts are not popular, as was evident at a recent public meeting, where Jameer Ali, president of the California Professional Employees Local No. 2345, was so mad, his voice was trembling.

“I care about this district," Ali said at the podium of the Inglewood school board room two weeks ago. "I want to see it succeed," he added. "Not you Dr. Brann. You’re not good for the district."

Brann, Inglewood Unified's top administrator, plans to lay off 44 custodial and security workers – nearly 10 percent of the members of Ali's union — next year. Ali said that'll make schools unsafe.

Brann said he has no choice. He also plans to layoff 70 teachers and 20 administrators.

RELATED: Orland Bus Crash: Inglewood students among missing after truck, tour bus collide in Northern California

"We’re trying to end the structural deficit here," he said. "Our fiscal recovery plan shows we’ll accomplish that within two years, maybe sooner. This is just part of a bigger plan here."

Brann is the third state trustee since 2012. The first trustee was asked to leave after two months, when he approved a deal with the teacher's union without waiting for a fiscal audit or running it past California Department of Education officials.

The state appears to have confidence in Brann. His contract was up this summer, but officials have offered a three-year extension.

Brann is hoping that time will help him fix the district's persistent problem with declining enrollment. Because the state pays schools based on the number of kids enrolled, dips in students mean smaller budgets. And Inglewood's enrollment has dropped nearly 25 percent in the last decade.

Brann is predicting another 6 percent drop next year.

The district's average test scores have for years failed to reach the 800-point Academic Performance Index goal set by the state, though elementary schools outperform high schools, as they do in many urban school districts. Many parents have fled to charter schools in recent years.

“I'm pretty happy, because he's passing,” Troy Fletcher said about his second grade son at Kelso Elementary School. "Then again, he was already advanced when he got here."

He says he'll put his son in a charter when he gets to middle school.

Tifanie Bethune doesn't want to wait that long. She wants her kids out now, but she says Inglewood Unified won't grant her a permit to transfer to another school district.

“If we hadn't just purchased our house here, we would leave,” she said.

A plan to woo parents

Brann said he has a plan to woo parents back.

“We're working on lowering our class sizes significantly, like by 50 percent in the primary grades,” He said.

He also wants to launch dual language immersion programs, create science and tech academies, begin remodeling and rebuilding old schools and hire new principals.

“We're doing a lot of things to change the game here,” Brann said.

Inglewood has one thing going for it: Prop. 30. The voter-approved measure gave the state billions to spend on public education. Gov. Jerry Brown earmarked some of it to help schools with large populations of low-income and English learner students. Inglewood wins on both counts: 27 percent of its students are English learners, and about 70 percent receive free or reduced meals.

If that funding keeps coming, and he makes the cuts, Brann said the district could have a balanced budget in 2015-16.

But that's not making district employees happy right now.

Chris Graeber, a field representative with the California Professional Employees union, said he was hopeful when Brann was appointed in July 2013. Not any more.

“We have no option [but] to tell the public: Don’t enroll your kids in Inglewood," Graeber told Brann during the April 29 public meeting. "We plan on doing a pledge drive to say, if you do not rescind this motion, take your kids out of Inglewood.”

Normally, angry workers and parents would be asking the school board to oust an unpopular administrator. But the state stripped Inglewood's school board of its powers when it took over. It still holds public meetings, but its role is "advisory," and members don't always show up.

Johnny Young was the only school board member at the April board meeting. He urged Brann to rescind the layoffs.

“We are not about saving money," he said, "as opposed to saving souls and saving lives."

Brann kept his cool during the uncomfortable meeting.

“I would urge you to stay tuned," he told the angry employees. "Old Yogi said: ‘It’s not over ‘til it’s over.’ I think there are opportunities ahead.”

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