Despite facing a $17 million budget shortfall, the Irvine City Council last night unanimously approved a proposal by Mayor Sukhee Kang to give $1 million to fund a program that alleviates the effects of an increase in classroom sizes.
The money would come in the form of a challenge grant to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation -- another $1 million is supposed to come from private companies. The proposal directs City Manager Sean Joyce to come up with a plan for implementation within 30 days.
The grant proposal comes at a time when the city had to leverage $14 million of its reserves and cut programs that affect education, like winter and spring camp and after-school programs. Kang said the $1 million will be taken from increased revenues expected from the expansion of the city's landfill.
"We must acknowledge that however prepared we are, our resources are limited," Kang said. "Nevertheless, we must take action to help our children."
The grant money would mostly go toward staffing instructional aids in classrooms, which would alleviate the burden of having two extra students per classroom. The classroom help would ensure more one-on-one time between students and teachers, more thorough evaluation of student work and "accelerate learning at all grade levels," Kang said.
Councilwoman Christina Shea said a similar grant in 2008 was full of improprieties. The city donated $1 million thinking it would go as soon as possible to the districts affected, instead the foundation held onto the money for nearly another year until it could raise the matching funds.
And, Shea said, the interest accrued from that money was never accounted for.
CEO of the foundation Neda Zaengle says Shea is wrong and that the city held onto the money until the foundation could raise another million to match the city's donation. This time around, the foundation has raised $500,000 and, after that effort, would have a tough time raising $1 million to match the city. Joyce is now tasked to come up with a plan that would circumvent that requirement.
Shea questioned the additional support when the city already gives $4.5 million to the school districts each year. And, she said, Kang failed to give the council a number to be considered until 40 minutes before the meeting started.
"I'm pretty much thrown off by this," Shea said. "I asked (for a figure) as recently as last Friday."
Shea pressed the city manager to back the plan and state for the record that the city could afford giving school districts the $1 million.
"I need to hear that you support it, that you agree as the city manager -- who puts the budget together -- that we can afford this," Shea said.
Joyce deferred to the "ultimate wisdom" of the council and said he respected its decisions. "Figuratively - I learned a long time ago that I have a microphone button but I don't have a vote button," Joyce said. "I know my place."
Mayor Pro Tem Larry Agran said he supported Kang's proposal and said Irvine was in danger of having its "nationally renowned" school system deteriorate into an "above average, but not sterling" education system.
-- ADAM ELMAHREK