By Joe W. Bowers Jr., California Black Media
If you live in the Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD), especially if you are Black and a property taxpayer, you should be concerned about the judgment of Dr. Erika Torres, County Administrator in charge of running Inglewood public schools.
Recently, Torres announced that IUSD is closing Warren Lane (aka Daniel Freeman) Elementary school.
Parents and others in the community reacted swiftly, letting IUSD and the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) know that they opposed the decision. So far, Torres has largely ignored their disagreement and plowed ahead, leaving their concerns unaddressed.
IUSD, like many California school districts, for many years has experienced declining student
enrollment. Since the 2003-04 school year, enrollment has decreased from about 18,000 students to approximately 7,750. As a result, the district’s facilities capacity is roughly twice the amount needed to accommodate its students. So, Torres’ decision to close some of Inglewood schools is fiscally and operationally appropriate.
To assist local educational agencies in selecting which schools to shut down, the California Department of Education developed the Closing a School Best Practices Guide (CASBPG). School districts usually form a School Closing/Consolidation Committee (SCCC) to recommend which schools to close.
Torres formed a pseudo SCCC which allows her to say that the committee recommended closing Warren Lane. But when you view the videos of the SCCC meetings the recommendation actually came from Total School Solutions (TSS), a consulting firm whose business license was suspended by the Franchise Tax Board while it was providing advice to IUSD.
TSS’s recommendation criterion relies on “current school enrollment” and “projected future enrollment” as the primary factors identifying schools to be closed.
However, it seems, IUSD and TSS totally disregarded the Closing a School Best Practices Guide (CASBPG), which advises, “The most obvious criterion, a school with declining enrollment, is not necessarily the best.”
According to CASBPG, it was bad judgment by Torres to adopt TSS’s simplistic criterion. Using this criterion will lead IUSD to close the schools it should keep open while keeping open schools it should close.
Another indicator of Torres’ bad judgment is the fact that she did not involve the Warren Lane community before making her decision. She blindsided them when she made her decision to close the school.
Warren Lane is the kind of school IUSD should keep active in its portfolio of schools. It is in a safe, stable
neighborhood offering an ideal environment for educating students.
The schools that Torres is opting to keep open are located under the flight path of LAX or near commercial businesses; exposed to freeway noise and air pollution; and alongside inherently unsafe, high traffic roads. She is keeping open four schools that are older than Warren Lane and seven with greater projected modernization costs.
Warren Lane has IUSD’s lowest enrollment. But that is because it is arguably the most neglected school in the district. Bond money promised for facility upgrades was diverted to other schools.
IUSD offers open enrollment, meaning students can opt to attend any school in the district. Enrollment reflects how well the school is maintained and the programs it offers. IUSD can attract students to Warren Lane by using its bond money to upgrade the school and offering rigorous academic programs and popular extracurricular activities.
It is not clear if Torres considered that closing Warren Lane would leave IUSD with only one majority African American school. Or whether being in a majority African American section of Inglewood where the houses are among the highest value in the city should be a reason to keep the school open.
Closing Warren Lane creates a “school desert” in the middle of zip code 90305. It disenfranchises highly taxed property owners unfairly, forcing them to support schools located in other parts of the school district.
Torres’ decision may add to the school district’s declining enrollment problem because IUSD is not guaranteed that children attending Warren Lane would go to other IUSD schools. Also, voters in the neighborhood would likely not be supportive of future bond measures because its school was closed.
Torres became Inglewood’s County Administrator about two years ago. She had never overseen a school district, so she lacks experience making these kinds of decisions. She is supported in her decision
by Dr. Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools. Because IUSD is in state receivership, the county oversees its schools.
Duardo is Torres’ boss, and she is fully aware of the reasons why there is opposition to closing Warren Lane, but she is betting that the people she reports to, the Los Angeles County Board of Education and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, view this as an inconsequential decision.
The LACOE Board and the Board of Supervisors have a responsibility to the residents of the Inglewood Unified School District to make sure administrators are making good judgments and following proper procedures on their behalf.
The LACOE Board or the Board of Supervisors can resolve this dispute by directing a Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) or other independent agency to investigate how the recommendation to close Warren Lane was developed. That team should investigate whether IUSD conducted a sufficient review of factors. If
not, the decision to close Warren Lane should be rescinded.
Both Duardo and Torres have said to the community, “we understand that these decisions are difficult.” But acknowledgement is not adequate. They owe parents and the community an explanation of all the factors that led IUSD to closing Warren Lane and visibility to the process through which that decision was made.