By JENNIFER STEINHAUER | New York Times
December 21, 2009 -- BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Daniel Kahn has never lived in this city, but he has attended its legendary public schools since the fourth grade. Now in eighth grade, he is vice president of the student council, plays in two school bands and is an A student who has been preparing to tread in his sister’s footsteps at Beverly Hills High School.
But Daniel will almost certainly be looking for a new place to hang his backpack next fall. The school board here intends to do away with hundreds of slots reserved for nonresident children, most of whom live in nearby neighborhoods of Los Angeles where the homes are nice but the city’s public school system is deeply distressed.
The students used to be a financial boon for Beverly Hills, bringing millions of dollars in state aid with them. But California’s budget crisis is changing the way schools are financed in many wealthy cities, suddenly turning the out-of-towners into money losers.
The result has been raucous school board sessions, Facebook pages devoted to each side of the debate, severed friendships and an unflattering snapshot of the social dynamic between Beverly Hills — an incorporated city of “much-haves” that needs no introduction — and the often faceless Los Angeles neighborhoods of simply “haves” that surround it.
“Membership has its privileges,” said Lisa Korbatov, vice president of the Beverly Hills school board. “But anyone can be a member. I made a choice to spend more to live in a home here when I could have spent less on a bigger home in another area. But I made a choice and sacrificed.”
Children like Daniel and his parents say the board’s impending decision — which has so riled the community that the police will be called to watch over next month’s board meeting when a formal vote will be taken — is callous toward the many children who have spent years in Beverly Hills schools.
“We happen to live in L.A.” said Michelle Menna, whose 13-year-old daughter Liat will most likely not be allowed to go to Beverly Hills High next year because of the new policy. “But her life and her after-school life since she moved here is with the children of Beverly Hills. It’s like they are breaking up her family.”
Ms. Menna, like several other parents interviewed, said she resented the fact that the Beverly Hills schools were happy to have her children when they brought the district money, but now find them expendable.
“Our kids brought them the money to put programs together that they did not have before,” she said.
Beverly Hills has long enjoyed a reputation for schools that mirror the city. But with declining enrollment in past years, the school district opened its doors to outsiders; currently about one in seven of its roughly 4,800 students — or 775 — attend with out-of-district permits.
The district, like most across the state, had historically been financed by the state based on a formula that pays for each student. The out-of-district students helped fill the classrooms and allow the district to reap extra money ($6,239 per child this year).
But the higher-than-average property taxes here, combined with deep slashes to the state’s education budget because of the recession — about 18 percent this year alone — have combined to change the formula. Essentially, because the city is collecting more in property taxes designated for education than it would receive from the state for its schools, the city is required to use its tax dollars directly to finance its schools.
Suddenly, with no state financing in the mix, there is no incentive to fill empty classrooms with children from other cities. From the point of view of most of the five school board members, the out-of-town students would essentially be on scholarship, and draining money — roughly $2 million a year, according to the superintendent for the district — that could go to other programs. The district’s annual budget is about $62.5 million.
“I am incredibly compassionate and sympathetic for what is going on here,” said Jake Manaster, a board member. But, he added, “It was very generous of Beverly Hills to take 20 percent of students from the outside.”
Looked at another way, Ms. Korbatov said, a person mugged in another city would not expect Beverly Hills police officers to respond. “City services,” she said, “be they fire, police, schools, are reserved for residents and their children.”
But one long-serving board member, Myra Lurie, opposes the plan. “I am seething mad,” Ms. Lurie said. “We invited these kids in, and they have been part of the family and the fabric of our district. People are not well served in my community by looking mean-spirited or elitist.”
Some of the so-called permit students would not be affected by the proposed changes. About 110 of them are children of people who work for the district or the municipal government, an arrangement the school board says benefits both those families and the city’s ability to attract a strong work force. Roughly 50 have been granted special permission for a variety of reasons, and roughly 65 are on “diversity” permits, which are issued to some families who apply from poor neighborhoods. In addition, 45 have so-called legacy permits — their parents attended Beverly Hills schools and their grandparents still live here.
That leaves close to 500 nonresident children on “opportunity permits.” At a meeting last Friday, board members outlined a plan that would do away with those permits, while allowing some students to stay on a little longer. Under the proposal, seventh graders could apply to attend eighth grade to finish middle school before finding a new district for high school, and 10th and 11th graders would be able to stay through graduation. Families could appeal to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which has ultimate authority on transfer matters throughout the county.
The contentious battle here is playing out elsewhere in California, where budget cuts have increased class sizes, reduced teacher rolls and, in a quirk of fate for those districts with high tax assessments, caused districts to forgo direct state financing and rely on “basic aid,” as the self-financing route is known.
In Irvine, an upscale city in Orange County, the district moved last spring to basic aid, and stopped its practice of taking children from neighboring cities like Santa Ana.
“It is going to crop up more and more,” said Peter Foggiato, a fiscal services administrator for the state’s Department of Education, “because of the increase in the deficit.” In 2007, of the state’s 975 districts, 90 used the basic aid formula; the state now has 969 districts, and 109 use basic aid.
The meeting in Beverly Hills next month is expected to be fraught.
“I’ve been called Hitler,” said Brian Goldberg, a board member. “I just want the noise to lessen.”
Liat Menna said she would attend the meeting.
“To know they don’t want me,” she said, “it hurts.”