Inglewood Unified only SoCal district on verge of state takeover

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The 12,000-student Inglewood Unified School District is on an unenviable list. It’s the only Southern California public school system district that expects to go bankrupt.

In recent years its school board has tried to cut costs and avert a state takeover. County and state officials say the district could run out of money to pay about 1,000 employees. That dominated the conversation at the most recent school board meeting Wednesday.

Half a dozen people sat in the audience. The board left the room for a closed-session meeting; when it returned, Superintendent Gary McHenry introduced item 10.

"We will have reflections/inspiration and the pledge of allegiance by Ms. Trina Williams," McHenry said.

Williams didn’t waste time talking about the storm clouds brewing over Inglewood Unified. She asked everyone present to pray for a miracle that could keep the district fiscally solvent.

"While the spirit of the Lord is present I suggest everybody up here start repenting for what you know you have done wrong," said Williams, "in your capacity as a school board member of this school district, in your capacity as a senior staff, and that goes for everybody."

She then walked to the middle of the carpeted, horseshoe-shaped desks, knelt and placed her hands on the floor in a gesture rarely seen at public school board meetings.

"I ask you to forgive us, Lord God, forgive us, father God, for we have sinned against you, Lord God, we have sinned against your will for these children, father God," Williams prayed before she began speaking in tongues. "Father, I ask you to expose everything that is not of you Lord God."

The pledge of allegiance followed. After that, Superintendent McHenry listed the hard facts that began to spell bankruptcy.

By May, the district will have a deficit of $4.1 million in cash, and by June, that deficit will balloon to $18 million, McHenry said. "Unless we get a loan or additional expenses, we will not be able to make payroll for these two months."

The superintendent proposed several solutions: Cut $7 million from campus and department budgets to qualify for a short-term loan, begin a campaign to regenerate student enrollment and lobby Sacramento to hand over millions of dollars lawmakers have deferred until next fiscal year.

Board member Alena Giardina said that everyone within Inglewood Unified’s boundaries would have to help.

"It’s really about our children," Giardina said. "It’s about our community. It’s about our property values. It’s about, are we adult enough to face this, as challenging as it is, and get through this, or do we all fail our children and our community?"

State law doesn’t allow school districts to go bankrupt. Sacramento would issue a loan and eliminate local control by appointing an administrator to monitor the district.

Inglewood parent Mercedes Bautista used her three minutes of public comment to pledge her support.

"The teachers are excellent," Bautista said. "Morningside, Payne, Olive Street, they’re all great schools with great teachers and they want their kids to learn."

Bautista said publicizing that good news could help stem the exodus of Inglewood students to nearby schools in Culver City and Santa Monica, as well as charter campuses. The district’s lost thousands of students in recent years, along with the money that the state attaches to their attendance.

School board member Giardina said one reason Inglewood Unified’s in such a mess is that the board didn’t cut teachers as enrollment dropped. The district’s laid off 150 teachers in the last couple of years.

Teachers' union president Peter Somberg said his teachers want the state to intervene and stop the board from what he called wasteful spending.

"It won't be good for the district," Somberg said, "but at least we won’t be hiring outside consultants any more. There will be a single person put in place by the state board, by the state Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who will be accountable. Right now these guys, these men and women are only accountable when they’re up for election."

The Inglewood Unified school board did not vote to move forward on the superintendent’s cost cutting plan. That’s likely to happen at the Jan. 25 meeting.

This story has been updated.