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A bittersweet moment as LAUSD AcaDeca teams head to state competition

Franklin High School AcaDeca coach Sam Cullens works with two of his decathletes.
Franklin High School AcaDeca coach Sam Cullens works with two of his decathletes.
Vanessa Romo/KPCC

Days after the L.A. Unified school board approved a budget plan that would axe funding for its powerhouse Academic Decathlon program, it will send a record 13 teams to Sacramento for what may be students' final weekend at the state competition.

Since 1987, the LAUSD has won 17 state contests and 12 national titles — more championships than any other school district in the country, according to a district release.

But most of these teams may not be able to compete next year if the current budget plan is finalized in June.

District officials have said they are working to find funding for the Academic Decathlon program along with the marching band and outdoor education program, all of which are seeing their funding eliminated under the current plan.

"If we sharpen our pencils we can come up with the funding for those," said school board member Bennett Kayser, at Tuesday's meeting on the budget.

For Cliff Ker, who coordinates the competition among L.A. Unified schools, his fear of the past few years has finally become a reality.

"I'm devastated," Ker said. "Because this is the time of year when I should be on an emotional high, an adrenaline high, because we have so many really good teams going to state...and I'm trying to get excited, but it's really hard."

Ker has worked for the district for 32 years and has coordinated the competition for the last 12 years. In the past, the district has informed him that they couldn't fund him as a full-time coordinator, but then found a last minute reprieve. He said it has been a "rollercoaster."

Other cuts have hit the program, including a roughly $2,000 drop in pay for coaches, who spend hours each day over many months working with students after school, Ker said.

Academic Decathlon's $400,000 budget provides for study materials and a roughly $2,800 stipend for coaches of the 63 teams, but does not pay for snacks for students, awards or schlarships, Ker said. Now none of that will be funded, according to the new plan.

"It's all brand new territory for me," Ker said. "I've been told there is no new money. I've been told I have to go out and look for private money, donations.

"Basically I've been a fundraiser the entire time I've been in this position, each year, especially the past three or four, it's been increasingly more difficult. We had to cut this, and cut that, and the other thing. We used to have Super Quiz live on TV, and they eliminated that a couple years ago."

Ker received his preliminary pink slip notice Saturday and said that if the program's funding was indeed cut once the budget was finalized in June, he would return to his previous position as an assistant principal at a secondary school.

When he learned in November that there wouldn't be any district funding for the program, Ker kept the news quiet because he said he didn't want to disturb the students' focus. The news broke publicly in February on the same day as their awards ceremony and Ker worked to give students hope.

"I've told them that even if LAUSD doesn't have a competition, I will do everything that I can to make sure they can compete somewhere in one of the other regions here in Southern California, because I don't want to see the program disappear in their schools," Ker said.

Ker has been in talks with the L.A. county coordinator for Academic Decathlon, where he may be able to enter 10 LAUSD teams next year. Ker said he has also been in touch with coordinators at Orange County, San Bernardino, Ventura, Kern, and Riverside. They too have expressed some interest in possibly picking up teams, but unlike at LAUSD, some of the competitions require as much as a $300 participation fee that may be impossible for some schools to afford, Ker said.

Already one coach at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in South Los Angeles has told Ker the school can't afford the $750 in study materials for next year's competition and so will likely have to drop out. Though some schools may be able to raise funds from their own community, Ker said roughly 50 of the 63 schools could probably not afford to do so.

"You're talking about kids whose parents are not very well-to-do, for the most part, so they don't have parents kicking in, or other people in the community kicking in," Ker said. "And so, these schools are going to go by the wayside."

The district set a record last year when it sent 11 schools to the state competition. This year it broke that record with 13 school teams, four of which have the highest regional competition scores in the country, Ker said.

Many of the states have already had their state competitions, including Texas, which has the highest score among them. But their winning team, (which had an extra five weeks to study, Ker adds) would have finished fourth in the L.A. Unified regional competition, he said.

Schools set to compete this weekend against more than 50 teams across California include: Granada Hills Charter High School, winner of LAUSD's 2012 Academic Decathlon contest; Marshall High School; El Camino Real Charter High School; Franklin High School; Taft High School; Van Nuys High School; Palisades Charter High School; Hamilton High School; Garfield High School; Bell High School; Los Angeles High School; San Pedro High School; and Francis Polytechnic High School.

The team from Bell High School qualified for the state competition for the first time this year and seven of its nine members are underclassmen, Ker said. 

"They were looking at going to the state competition...doing well, and coming back next year," Ker said. "They could have been a contender at state, national..."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).