Huntington Beach school officials could shutter an elementary school with the highest concentration of Latino and English-learning kids in their district to save money.
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The closure of Joseph R. Perry Elementary would be the latest effort by Huntington Beach City School District officials to tighten their cash-strapped budget and ward off the threat of the district falling into state receivership – a scenario in which the district’s control over the schools would be relinquished to the state, and school board members would fall back into an advisory role.
Opponents to the proposal — many of them teachers, parents, and social justice groups – say the closure would deal a discriminatory blow to low-income students and their parents at the school, many of whom speak Spanish as a first language.
Perry is one of seven elementary schools in the district, which also counts two middle schools.
It’s the second time the school’s fate was thrown into question by officials concerned over low enrollment. Perry was considered for closure once before in 2018, but the district ultimately backed off.
The school district Board of Trustees took no action on the new closure proposal at their Tuesday meeting, held virtually on Zoom to abide by health separation guidelines during the coronavirus emergency.
A decision on the closure proposal is expected on April 28 after two public hearings on April 23 and April 27.
At Tuesday’s meeting, 103 public comments were submitted by parents, teachers and community members – many of them opposed to the closure. A small volume of those comments were read, and many were submitted in Spanish, which were read aloud by staff to the school board but weren’t translated publicly into English.
Perry “has the highest concentration of Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and English-learning students in the District,” reads a letter to the school board from Deylin Thrift-Viveros, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
Perry Elementary parent Kurt Chrestensen called the closure proposal a “civil rights issue.”
“It’s basically this kind of underlying tinge of classism, and racism, that that’s been going on throughout this whole process,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview. “And thinking that, ‘okay, we can pick on these families and these kids, because it’s the path of least resistance.’”
School board members didn’t respond during the discussion to arguments by members of the public over the school’s vulnerable populations, before receiving and filing the closure proposal and setting the dates for the public hearings.
Kyle Kason, a member of a school district task force that recommended Perry’s closure, said it “would affect the least amount of students.”
“Its campus has not been upgraded, and many of its students are already on buses,” he said, later adding that “students have been transferring out of Perry for years, and they will continue to transfer out of Perry in the future.”
During a discussion on the district’s finances, board members like Bridget Kaub and Paul Morrow argued the benefits behind closing a school in the district to keep the budget above water in future years.
Greg Magnuson, a consultant hired by the district to help mull over a financial plan, told board members that the closure of a school to help recover the budget “is no longer an option.”
“Either that or you have to find another pot of money from somewhere,” he said, later pointing out the district will be “judged” based on its year-over-year budget projections. A district being certified positive means “there’s no issue,” he said; negative means “I can’t pay my bills.”
Morrow said closing a school in the district is the “only way we can avoid a negative certification.”
Even after closing a school, Kaub said there would be gaps to fill and more expenses to cut down on. That, plus she said the school will likely take further hits from downturns in tax revenue going to the district resulting from the coronavirus health crisis.
“If we take everything the way it is right now and continue to look at waiting an additional year to close a school, it sounds to me we will absolutely go into state receivership much quicker,” Kaub said.
Jennifer Spehar, a teacher at Isaac L. Sowers Middle School, said the district shouldn’t be putting “one school over another.”
Spehar told the board to get “creative” and look at ways to cut down on expenses like “removing all the decrepit portables off all campuses.”
The school closure recommendation came from a select “Task Force” of 11 people in the district. Critics say the selection process for that committee was conducted entirely online, and that no application or solicitation materials for the task force were provided in Spanish.
The process of forming a committee of 11 members that’s “representative of the ethnic and socioeconomically disadvantaged status of significant portions of the district’s student population should include outreach to the Latino community and an application accessible to those without an internet connection or without a résumé,” reads the letter from MALDEF.
“Parents and community members have also informed us that none of the members of the Task Force lived within or near the Perry Elementary school boundaries,” it adds. “The exclusion of Perry stakeholders from the school closure process is, in the least, unfair.”
Asked about the possibility of MALDEF getting involved legally, Thrift-Viveros in a phone interview said “at this point the board hasn’t decided whether to close the school or not.”
“We’re not committed to legal action at this moment, but if Perry were to be closed, that is definitely something we’ll investigate more comprehensively, on any sort of ways we can advocate to save a community school like that,” he added.
When the task force voted to recommend Perry for closure on April 8, four members of the task force dissented with a letter arguing against Perry’s selection.
Staff read that letter aloud at Tuesday’s meeting during public comment, submitted by one of its authors and task force members, Andrew McEachin, who questioned the data and methodology behind his committee’s majority decision to recommend Perry’s closure.
“The district did not provide several relevant and important data until the task force had already eliminated four schools (as options for closure) relying on incomplete information,” the letter reads.
For example, “it was clear by the end of this process that distances traveled were a critical measurement to understand the impact of a school closure on students and families. And this data not being made available early in the process is a major error.”
The letter claims “ if you close a school in the center of the district, there would be far fewer boundaries to redraw, fewer families would have to attend a new school and fewer families would have to travel long distances for their school.”
Responding to that claim in public comment, Kason said “Distance is one of the 11 factors we were asked to consider, but not the only factor.”
“I do not believe there are any elementary students walking two miles to school in this district,” he said, adding “If Perry remains open, low enrollment will remain.”
The task force recommendation “was not taken lightly,” Kason added, “and I was not happy to vote yes for any school to close, but we signed up for a task and completed that task. The decision was not rushed and was certainly not made without adequate data.”
Chrestensen called Perry “ a wonderful school with a wonderful staff” – no less so than the other schools in the district.
He said parents who opt to take their kids to schools with wealthier kids or higher test scores don’t recognize that Perry’s diversity is “actually a strength right now.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.