LA Unified administrator tapped to lead troubled Inglewood schools

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced on Wednesday that he’s picked long-time local educator Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana as the new trustee for the troubled Inglewood Unified School District.

Melendez de Santa Ana currently leads the Los Angeles Unified School District's Office of Educational Services. She previously has advised Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on education issues and served as superintendent of the school districts in Pomona and Santa Ana.

That experience brings “great leadership experience [and] great experience managing challenging districts and being creative,” Torlakson said.

Inglewood Unified’s school board and superintendent were stripped of their decision-making authority in 2012 when they requested a $55 million loan from the state to avoid bankruptcy. The district’s financial troubles were brought on by a combination of mismanagement and a state fiscal crisis.

Since then, the state-run district has also been plagued by leadership turnover: Melendez de Santa Ana will be the district’s fifth trustee in five years. 

Previous trustees, Torlakson said, have moved Inglewood's budget out of a deep red zone – though the district continues to face financial challenges caused as families have fled the district. Now, Melendez de Santa Ana's charge is to boost the district's dwindling enrollment numbers and lagging academic performance. 

“She’s well aware of all of the challenges, including our goals to improve academic outcomes and to give parents choices so they want to stay in the Inglewood school district,” Torlakson said.

The most recent state trustee, Vince Matthews, left in March – a year and a half after his appointment – to accept the position of superintendent of San Francisco schools. He was unable to stem the student enrollment drop that’s been plaguing the school district for years. According to the California Department of Education, student enrollment at Inglewood schools has dropped 12 percent in the last five years, that’s three times the percentage of L.A. County’s drop in the same time period.

Student enrollment dropped nearly 600 students in the most recent year. That represents about $6 million in lost state funding. 

In her new job, Melendez de Santa Ana may also oversee layoffs. A June, 2017 letter from the financial office of the L.A. County Office of Education advised the school district that it faced a nearly $5 million deficit in the coming year.

The teachers union is worried about those potential layoffs.

“She will need to listen to all stakeholders,” said Kelly Iwamoto, the president of the Inglewood Teachers’ Association.

Iwamoto agrees that slowing the exodus of students will require supporting current programs such as new dual language programs and improving the district’s struggling high schools.

“The next state administrator has to be somebody that is resilient, because you have to be here for the long haul,” Iwamoto said. Previous Inglewood state-appointed trustees have served for about two years or less, either because of resignation or to take another job.

State officials must sign off on Inglewood’s fiscal and academic improvements before the trustee hands back local control to the school board and a superintendent.

Previous state appointed trustees spent $29 million of a $55 million loan requested from the state. The state will hand back local control when the school district’s finances and academics have been stabilized.

The school district is paying $1.8 million yearly to pay back that loan. The state estimates those payments to go through 2033.

Current Inglewood school officials think Melendez de Santa Ana’s experience running a variety of L.A. county schools will make the difference.

“I think she can help get the word out there. One of the assets that she brings is that she has a strong local network. She’s here in Los Angeles, she’s familiar with the communities,” said D’Artagnan Scorza, a member of the school board whose third grade son attends Inglewood schools.

Scorza predicts the school district can exit state takeover in three years.

Melendez de Santa Ana is also a trustee of the California State University. She is the first Mexican American to head that school district in recent memory. In recent decades demographic shifts in Inglewood have led the city from a majority African American to a majority Latino population.

Inglewood Unified is one of four school districts currently under state takeover by the state, and the only one in Southern California.

Melendez de Santa Ana has worked at L.A. Unified since 2014. Currently she oversees L.A. Unified’s powerful office of educational services. That unit oversees the running of six divisions in the school district, including transportation, food services and procurement.