The Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD) is in dire straits. The district has run up staggering debts, enrollment is plummeting and, despite the school district’s financial duress, administrators recently treated themselves to a resort retreat on the taxpayer’s dime.
On September 14, 2012, with the possibility of insolvency looming, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 533, which extended a $29 million dollar loan and authorized a further $26 million in financing for the underwater school district. The same act stripped the IUSD school board of its powers, dismissed the local superintendent, and put the district under control of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson. Unfortunately the change of leadership has not improved the district’s performance.
Enrollment at Inglewood, which peaked in 2003-04 at almost 18,000, has since dropped to less than 13,000. Falling enrollment did not stop Kent Taylor, the first administrator Torlakson appointed, from adding 103 teacher positions that had not been approved by the previous school board. Taylor also reversed course on the local school board’s plan for a fifteen percent reduction in employee compensation and made an unauthorized agreement with the union on teacher salaries through 2014-15. Though he resigned after only a few months Taylor established a precedent for the kind of fiscal mismanagement to come under state control.
LaTanya Kirk-Carter, who replaced Taylor, served as the interim administrator until July 2013. Under her control the proposed budget for 2013-14 projected a $10.1 million deficit and admitted an $18.4 million deficit for the previous year. In the same month as her dismissal the California Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) released a report saying that the district had used $29 million in loans in the first four months of state control. The report also projected that the district would exhaust all available loans in 2014, and that deficits should be expected in 2015.
Don Brann, a retired administrator who is credited with turning around Wiseburn and Wilsona school districts, was appointed to replace Kirk-Carter. Despite Brann’s experience there are indications of continued drift in IUSD.
Administrators recently spent nearly $40,000 on a retreat at a La Jolla resort to discuss implementation of Common Core curriculum. When questioned about this expenditure Brann said that he was unaware of the plans until it was too late to make any changes, and that he did not approve of such spending. Outraged students threatened a walkout to protest the costly retreat. School officials responded by calling in police to stop the demonstration. There were no arrests, but the incident shows that the district is in turmoil.
There is, however, reason to hope that Inglewood’s fortunes may turn. In a somewhat ironic twist, Brann’s success in turning around Wiseburn School District (WSD) was partially due to his inter-district enrollment plan, a plan that drew students from IUSD. WSD increased enrollment by touting the district’s small class sizes and availability of space for after school programs to attract students from surrounding areas, including Inglewood. California funds its districts based on total enrollment, which means that state funding increases as student population grows. As the WSD student population expanded Brann used the additional money to offer specialized programs and activities.
After leaving WSD Brann founded Da Vinci Schools, a charter operator, to meet the parental demand for security, stability, and quality facilities. In light of the fact that many students left IUSD for Da Vinci and Wiseburn schools, there is reason to think that the flow can be reversed.
Adopting a weighted student funding mechanism would help Inglewood to improve schools and draw students. Weighted student funding, also known as portable funding or backpacking, attaches a dollar amount to each individual student. This funding then follows the student to their chosen school. Backpacking has clear advantages for schools that are able to attract more students, the most obvious being more money.
Weighted funding would also help IUSD by providing schools with a strong incentive to improve. When students are able to choose which school to attend through open enrollment, and schools see a direct relation between students and funding, schools are highly motivated to improve. Brann’s record of establishing inter-district enrollment and opening charter schools to attract students shows that he understands the powerful potential for school choice to effect positive change.
Another advantage of weighted student funding for a district like IUSD is spending autonomy in exchange for transparency. Inglewood administrators, both before and after the state takeover, have accumulated tremendous debts. Deficits and mismanagement prove that IUSD’s administration needs to be more transparent. With backpacking, school principals have much greater autonomy over how school dollars are spent, allowing those closest to students to shape programmatic offerings that best serve their unique educational needs. In exchange for the added autonomy school administrators are held accountable by being required to publish school-level budgets, which brings clarity to school finances. The cities of Hartford and Houston, for example, publish detailed reports of school budgets and how those budgets are generated. Both cities have seen positive results.
Districts that give more budgetary autonomy to the schools, such as Oakland Unified, tend to see greater improvements in overall performance. Budgetary autonomy contributed to Oakland’s success improving student proficiency and narrowing the achievement gap.
IUSD has been up to no good for far too long, and students are leaving in droves as a result. Years of deficits, mounting debts, and continued managerial dysfunction prove that a major change is needed. Adopting a weighted student funding mechanism would help the district to improve in many ways. For the love of California students, Brann needs to make it happen.