By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer, Daily Breeze
Angeles Perez is among the parents fighting possible plans to close Gardena's Sellery Special Education Center to help balance the LAUSD's expected $718 million budget shortfall. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)
03/07/2009 - Angeles Perez's 11-year-old son is mildly retarded, autistic and suffers from seizures. He barely speaks, and it's never been easy for her to leave him at school.
But things were different after Perez enrolled her son at Sellery Special Education Center in Gardena, a cheerful campus with just 78 students.
"As soon as he got into Sellery, I could see a big change. I would drop him at school and he would say, 'Go, go!' Before, he would grab my legs," Perez said. "Now he can write his name."
Perez is among dozens of parents who have developed a fierce allegiance to the small Los Angeles Unified school that has been educating moderately to severely disabled children for nearly 50 years.
Now she and others are fighting to keep the school.
Facing a $718 million budget shortfall next year, Superintendent Ramon Cortines has asked his district superintendents to recommend campuses with fewer than 200 students for possible closure.
Local District 8 Superintendent Linda del Cueto, whose offices are adjacent Sellery, said the K-6 school was the only South Bay campus she has identified for "consolidation."
By eliminating some staff and maintenance costs, the move would save about $600,000 annually, she said - though Cortines said he thought it might be as little as $300,000.
"All year we have been focused on taking a look at right-sizing the district and all services and programs and offices," del Cueto said. "Because this involves students ... this is a very difficult decision for everybody to make."
Sellery and one other LAUSD campus - West Valley Special Education Center in Van Nuys, which has 117 students - are the farthest along the path to possible consolidation, officials said.
Last month, Cortines and del Cueto met with parents at Sellery to explain that there is room for their children at other campuses - west of Compton, at a mainstream elementary school and a special education center, and at Willenberg Special Education Center in San Pedro.
But parents aren't receptive.
"Everything was about money, money," Perez said. "The decision was made without even getting community and parents involved. ... It really breaks our hearts."
Cortines stressed this week that he hadn't made any choices yet about which of the district's 82 campuses with fewer than 200 students to recommend for closure. Good possibilities, he said, are continuation high schools and community day schools, which serve high-risk youth.
"I'm trying to investigate everything," Cortines said. "We're still several hundred million away from balancing this deficit."
Next week, the LAUSD board will vote on sending out 8,846 layoff notices to staff - including nearly 2,000 elementary school teachers. Cortines is also planning to cut local district office funding, among other reductions.
Any potential school closures would likely go to the Board of Education on March24 as part of package of cuts, Cortines said.
"Small schools are on the priority list. Schools that are under 100, that require a principal and custodial staff and office staff - in these budget times, we just can't afford that," he said.
On Tuesday, with the backing of Gardena Councilman Dan Medina, Perez and others delivered an 800-signature petition to Sellery Principal Karol McQueary to keep the school open.
Parent Ana Zamora wrote to administrators that her 4-year-old daughter was nonverbal and unable to get along with others until she came to Sellery.
"Her life began to bloom into a beautiful, confident and independent big girl. My daughter can walk and distinguish certain shapes. ... She can sign language and speaks in three-word phrases," Zamora wrote. "I know that part of this I owe to Sellery and the remarkable teachers, aides, volunteers and in general everybody."
Designed nearly 50 years ago specifically for special education students, the campus is unusually bright and clean for LAUSD. The corridors are covered in colorful murals - painted by some 350 volunteers just last spring - and tall plants line the corridors.
Each classroom has direct access to an outdoor space, with grassy areas, trees and bougainvillea. Raised garden beds allow children in wheelchairs to plant seedlings - beans, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers - and monitor their growth. New all-abilities playground equipment is shared with a 48-student, state preschool that is also on site.
"This a special place. It's beautiful, it's safe and of course the parents and kids love it," McQueary said. "But I know that the district is in a terrible financial state. They're not closing us because of anything we've done. We're strictly a victim of the fiscal crisis in California."
The campus has been a favorite with nonprofits. Comcast workers last spring painted the murals that line the halls. The Carson-Gardena-Dominguez Rotary has held regular Christmas events - last year Councilman Medina played Santa Claus - and hosts an annual spring petting zoo for the students.
"This is an emotionally packed situation, where the parents are really, really upset," Medina said. "They're being told, 'We haven't made a decision yet ... but start looking for new schools."'
District officials acknowledge that the campus is unique, and say they are loath to move special education students. The district would find jobs at other campuses for Sellery's permanent staff and teachers, del Cueto said.
But the school - which saw its enrollment drop by nearly half five years ago when it went from an all-ages campus to a K-6 - uses only 10 of 19 classrooms on campus.
The district uses remaining space for the state preschool, a testing area for deaf children and for pre-K students with special needs. There's also a state-funded children's health program - which caters to some of the school's students - at the end of one wing.
If the school is closed, Cortines said it could be opened as a charter school or used to relieve severe overcrowding at nearby Peary Middle School.
"When it comes to special children, I have to be very sensitive to how their educational needs are met," Cortines said. "But we need to better utilize the space of that very, very nice campus."