By Melissa Pamer and Douglas Morino Staff Writers | Daily Breeze
Jaren Rhodes, 8, attends second grade at Anza Elementary School in Hawthorne with a permit. Mom Susie Rhodes is worried that LAUSD in Westchester where they live will begin eliminating permits for kids to attend schools outside district boundaries. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)
03/12/2010 08:35:31 PM PST -- Thousands of children attending South Bay schools on special permits face the prospect of returning to their neighborhood campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District under a policy change quietly approved by board members.
The financially beleaguered Los Angeles district says it plans to stop offering about 80 percent of its inter-district transfers next year, a move expected to affect nearly 10,000 students, more than a third of whom attend South Bay schools.
The Board of Education approved the policy change at a meeting last month, but the action drew no public comment and generated only a brief discussion among members, who were largely enthusiastic about welcoming students back to LAUSD.
In an internal memo sent last month, Superintendent Ramon Cortines estimated the resulting enrollment boost could bring the district $51 million in new funds next year. The 618,000-student district, already reeling from funding cuts over the last two years, is facing a $640 million shortfall.
The new revenue for LAUSD will mean lost income for nearby school districts, which are likewise struggling with massive state budget cuts and declining enrollment.
On average, about two-thirds of school districts' budgets come from enrollment-based state funds, which are based on average daily attendance or ADA.
South Bay districts - which are surrounded by Los Angeles Unified territory from Westchester to Gardena, Carson, Lomita and down to the Harbor Area - could have a lot to lose.
Torrance Unified accepts more LAUSD students than any other district in the county. According to LAUSD's figures, almost 2,200 of its students transfer to Torrance schools, accounting for nearly a tenth of the South Bay district's enrollment.
Torrance school board President Mark Steffen said the loss of those students could end up costing the district up to $9 million.
"It's really concerning," Steffen said. "Permit kids bring dollars into our schools. It just means more cuts, higher class sizes and less teachers."
Other South Bay districts that could potentially lose a substantial number of students are Manhattan Beach Unified, El Segundo Unified and Wiseburn.
LAUSD has not yet made an official notification of the new policy to other districts. Neither has it told parents, some of whom are bound to panic.
But the news is starting to get out on Internet message boards and by word of mouth.
"I'm sick to my stomach," said Susie Rhodes, a Playa del Rey resident with an 8-year-old son in his third year at Anza Elementary in the tiny, Hawthorne-based Wiseburn School District.
"If I have to tell him he has to go back to an L.A. Unified school, he'll be devastated," Rhodes said. "I just didn't like what I saw there. There's a huge difference in the care he receives now."
LAUSD officials argue the district has recently improved its educational offerings and academic achievement. And they said parents should be attracted to pristine new schools provided by the district's $20 billion construction program - though there's only one new campus open and just four planned in the South Bay and Harbor Area.
"The superintendent's position is: We have a variety of programs in this district. He's made a concerted effort to improve the quality of our schools and offer options," said Rene Gonzalez, assistant superintendent of student health and human services.
"He believes that students who reside in the Los Angeles Unified area should be attending our public schools," said Gonzalez, who oversees transfer operations.
There will be some exceptions to the policy change.
Children who have "senior status" - meaning they will be in fifth, eighth or 12th grade next year - will still be issued permits. Another exception is students whose parents work in other school districts; they'll still be allowed to continue to attend those districts.
A provision of state Education Code that is set to expire in 2012 attempts to make it easier for children to attend schools in the area where their parents work, in certain circumstances.
At the same time, complicated portions of the code allow most districts the ability to limit the number of outgoing transfer students.
Districts may cap the number of permits that they give out to 1 percent of their enrollment. But the law says districts are generally required to offer permits up to that cap, according to Bill Lucia, policy director for Sacramento-based education reform advocacy group EdVoice.
"It's questionable whether LAUSD can apply these restrictions, unless these caps specifically apply," Lucia said.
Furthermore, a provision of recently enacted Race to the Top legislation - which introduced reforms so California would be eligible for new federal funds - will make it easier for parents to transfer out of the state's 1,000 lowest-performing schools, Lucia said. That list, which is sure to include plenty of LAUSD campuses, has yet to be issued.
"It'll be a game changer - by putting parents in charge of finding the best public school for kids, instead of school bureaucrats or ZIP codes making that determination," Lucia said.
LAUSD officials said their new policy would remain in line with state law.
"This is in alignment with our policy change. We will continue to grant permits that are employment related," Gonzalez said in a brief e-mail.
Parents will be able to appeal initial decisions to LAUSD officials. If turned down, they can then appeal to the seven-member Los Angeles County Board of Education, which is preparing for a significant increase in such cases.
Still, LAUSD officials expect to bring back four-fifths of the 12,249 students that are out on inter-district permits this year.
The move comes on the heels of an attention-generating decision by Beverly Hills Unified School District to curtail a long-standing program that lets outsiders attend its high-achieving campuses.
Nearly 950 Beverly Hills students come from Los Angeles schools, according to LAUSD records.
At the Feb. 9 meeting where the LAUSD board approved the policy change - obscurely labeled on the agenda as "delegation of authority for inter-district attendance agreements" - the Beverly Hills situation came up.
"They're going to chase everyone out. I would certainly hope they chase everyone to L.A. We'd love them," said board member Richard Vladovic, who represents the Harbor Area and part of the South Bay.
"They're certainly welcome," Cortines responded.
Unlike Beverly Hills, other school districts that accept LAUSD transfers may not be so willing to part with those students, who bring in significant attendance-based revenue from the state. (Beverly Hills Unified has planned to change its funding strategy and will soon be less dependent on enrollment-based state dollars.)
More than 4,000 students from Los Angeles Unified attend South Bay districts, with another 1,667 going to Culver City schools, according to LAUSD data.
LAUSD's figures show that almost 2,200 of its students transfer to Torrance schools, accounting for about 8.5 percent of enrollment at the South Bay district. Torrance officials put the figure at fewer than 2,000.
(Other districts likewise reported some discrepancy in the numbers of transfer students that LAUSD data showed.)
A spokeswoman for Torrance Unified said the impact would be small, and Superintendent George Mannon declined an interview request through her.
"The effects of LAUSD's decision will be minimal to our district," wrote spokeswoman Tammy Khan in an e-mail.
But Julie Shankle, president of the Torrance Teachers Association, said she's worried about the new policy. She suspects North and Torrance high schools will be especially hard hit, as they're relatively close to LAUSD territory.
"If we don't get the permit kids, we're going to have a greatly reduced student population. That will affect the number of teachers," said Shankle, who at one time obtained a permit for her child to attend school outside LAUSD. "School districts are so desperate for money they're going to do whatever they can, even if it means flaunting the spirit of choice."
Last year, the Hawthorne School District took a course similar to LAUSD's by barring most outgoing transfers. Superintendent Donald Carrington said the backlash from parents was palpable. The county Board of Education sided with about 85 percent of parents who filed an appeal, he said.
"In these economic times every child matters in a variety of ways," said Carrington, who was not surprised by LAUSD's decision. "We believe our programs are good, if not better than most. But parents have the right to place their children anywhere they choose, based on their needs."
Hawthorne's transfer policy remains in effect.
Other local school officials said they were concerned about the loss of students and subsequent financial hit, but expressed optimism that a majority of appeals would be upheld.
In the 2,300-student Wiseburn School District, nearly a third of the district's transfer students come from LAUSD.
"We're getting calls from our parents - they're nervous," said Alicia Galindo, Wiseburn's permit coordinator.
Charter campuses, including Wiseburn's new Da Vinci high schools, will not be affected by LAUSD's decision.
Parents living in LAUSD boundaries with children in South Bay schools this week voiced frustration about the decision.
"It's frightening for us because we feel El Segundo is our home away from home," said Westchester resident Cathy Lindsay, whose eighth-grade daughter is on a permit and hopes to attend El Segundo High School next year. "The loss of money for the school district will be even more of a lurch. It's an upheaval on many levels."
Lindsay, whose husband works in El Segundo, said she hopes her permit will not be affected by the decision.
Some parents take a different view of Los Angeles schools.
Kelly Kane, who co-founded the Westchester/Playa Education Foundation in 2004 to help improve local schools and try to persuade more parents to send their children to them, said many residents are unnecessarily scared off by Los Angeles Unified's poor reputation.
"Every parent should check out their local district school. That should be their first option," Kane said. "There's a lot of bad news about LAUSD. But it doesn't affect every school, particularly at the elementary level."
With the advent of Kane's foundation and the rise of an innovative Loyola Marymount University partnership with seven local schools, more parents are interested in sending their children to Westchester's public campuses, Kane said.
Though she's been a booster for local schools, she said she recognizes plenty of parents may want other options.
"Having gone and visited your public school and feeling it's not right for your child, that's different," Kane said. "Then you should look for other schools. There are lots of other choices. There are magnets within the district; there are charters."
LAUSD's Gonzalez said the district would seek to provide information about alternatives within LAUSD.
"We'll certainly educate them on the options that might be available to them. We can't guarantee a program to be there," he said.
The district is expecting a good number of appeals to be filed, Gonzalez said.
LAUSD will officially communicate the policy change to school districts this month. But Los Angeles school officials have not yet decided how to tell parents, a notification that Gonzalez said is not required.
Parents can begin filing permit requests after May 1, and they'll get answers within three to four weeks, he said.
After internal appeals are exhausted, parents have 30 days to ask for a review by the county Office of Education.
Last year, officials there reviewed about 200 cases, with about half getting resolved at a meeting between the parties involved. The other half were heard before the county Board of Education, said Victor Thompson, director of the county's division of student support services.
More districts are limiting outgoing transfers in the past two years because of the state budget climate, he said. This spring and summer, the county plans to double the number of staff working on appeals, as an influx is expected.
Thompson stressed that each case was decided individually on its merits, based on a variety of criteria such as student interest in a particular program, or a transportation-related hardship.
He said the hearings can be trying for both parents and students.
"Parents commit themselves to the process because they're trying to do what's best for their child," Thompson said. "It's an emotional time."