Inglewood schools lagging under state takeover, auditor says

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The Inglewood Unified School District's finances and operations have not significantly improved under the administration of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, officials with the California State Auditor's office told residents at a public hearing Thursday night.

“Deficit spending has continued in the three years following the state take over and the savings called for in the district’s fiscal recovery plan have not materialized,” said Deputy State Auditor Ben Belnap.

The 11,000-student school district was on the verge of bankruptcy in July, 2012, when school board members requested a $55 million bailout loan from the state. In accepting the loan, the board gave up its authority and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson appointed a state administrator to run the school district.

But there's been growing criticism of Torlakson’s oversight of Inglewood Unified, one of only nine school districts in the state that has requested a state bailout loan.

The audit found that expenditures increased from $115.3 million to $125.5 million between fiscal years 2012-13 and 2014-15. Getting the budget into the black is critical, the auditor said, because it’s a requirement for a return of local control and it’s the only way the school district will be able to repay the $29 million dollars it has spent from the loan it requested.

“The state has done a disservice, at this time, to this district,” Johnny Young, a former Inglewood Unified school board member, said as he left the hearing in the Inglewood High School auditorium.

State Asseblywoman Autumn Burke said recent reports of dilapidated and dangerous facilities should prompt Torlakson’s office to move Inglewood to the top of his priority list.

“I know you guys have a lot of schools but this one is incredibly important, this community is incredibly important, and it's going through an incredible time of change," Burke said. "It is inexcusable to allow our children to suffer the way they have."

The state auditor recommended the state administrator to come up with annual goals for the school district to address the improvements outlined by the district's fiscal crisis management team. The auditor also recommended the state administrator communicate what it’s going to take for the school district to return to local control and the progress toward that goal.

The audit was released last November but it was the first time officials spoke about it publicly in Inglewood. The hearing was organized by State Assemblyman Mike Gipson, the chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

Torlakson aide Jason Spencer, who represented his boss at the meeting, said that day-to-day management of the district's finances isn't in the hands of the California Department of Education, but rather rests with the state's administrator, a position that has been held by four different people since 2012.

“This is not an instance where the state department is running the district,” Spencer said.

And officials heaped praise on Vincent Matthews, the new state administrator who’s been on the job less than six months but who officials said appears to be a better fit than the previous three state administrators.

“Dr. Matthews is one of the few individuals in the state that has been a state administrator that has returned powers to a district board,” Spencer said.

Most of the 100 people in attendance were elected officials and their staffs, civic leaders, school district employees and their union representatives.

“I thought this hearing was for the community,” Inglewood teachers union president Kelly Iwamoto said and the hearing’s organizers should have made sure that the auditorium was full.

One of the few parents in attendance was Miriam Morris, who represented the school district’s Parent Teacher Association council.

Inglewood Unified has lost many students due to low school performance, rising housing costs, and more charter schools opening in the area. But, Morris said, she is seeing progress. 

“We see a shift in tone and we see things happen right away,” Morris said about Matthews’ leadership.

Case in point, she said: After she enrolled her kindergartener at an Inglewood school this year the school district moved quickly to create a dual language Spanish immersion program. And that, Morris said, gives her hope that this school is the right place for her family.

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