Blanca Salgado of Huntington Beach remembers playing on the school grounds of Joseph R. Perry Elementary as a child, more than 30 years ago. Now her children go there.
The school — which serves a large segment of the Huntington Beach City School District’s Latino and English-learning kids — has remained a mainstay in Salgado’s family and the others in her neighborhood, she said. She also had plans to enroll her other child, who’s turning five this year.
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“They were all going to be together at the same school. All the kids in my neighborhood attend Perry. I went there. My little sister went there,” Salgado said in a Friday, April 24 phone interview. “It was going to work perfectly for me.”
But her plans could be upended today as the district’s Board of Trustees is set to meet at 5:00 p.m., through the virtual meeting platform Zoom, to vote on whether or not to close the school as a cost-saving measure for the district’s financial woes.
School officials in their reasoning say the closure would cut down on operating costs, buying them time to address the district’s budget that’s currently projected to be upside down by $6.9 million, and staving off the threat of the community losing key control over classroom decisions and programs.
Greg Magnuson, a consultant hired by the district to help smooth out a financial plan, told board members at an April 14 meeting that the closure of a school to help recover the budget “is no longer an option.”
Magunson said a school closure is one of the only ways to avoid a negative certification, which he said, for the district, means “‘I can’t pay my bills.’”
But after a previous closure threat in 2018 — which school officials backed off on that year — and a more recent study by a school district “Task Force,” which recommended Perry’s closure again this year, parents are wondering why the school has been the top choice for closure twice.
When the district in February created the task force, they had the option of recommending not one, but two elementary schools for closure. But the task force narrowed in on its options, recommending only that Perry be closed.
“The formation of the Task Force raised several concerns. The application for membership was only provided online, in English, and applicants were required to submit a résumé,” said an April 27 letter from Deylin Thrift-Viveros, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), which criticized the closure proposal.
The letter argued the requirements were unnecessary for a task force member “to adequately fulfill the role, and, instead, served as impediments preventing community members served by Perry Elementary” like non-English speakers “from participating in such an important decision.”
The April 27 letter was the second one MALDEF sent requesting the school board rethink its movements, and hinted at the possibility of legal involvement should the school board vote to close the school.
Mandi Silvaggio, a member of that task force, in written comments to the board defended her committee’s decision and the process.
“A lot of time and effort was put into the choosing of Perry and the fact that it impacted the least amount of children,” Silvaggio said her comments submitted on April 21. “It is very sad to watch it become about race and the rumors that are swirling about lawsuits. Lawsuits that will take money right out of ALL of our kids’ education once again.”
Valeria Espinoza, another Perry parent, and Salgado both said the district made insufficient efforts to reach out to them about the closure.
Espinoza in a Sunday phone interview said the district “could’ve done things like make a page in Spanish or an email or call. I know right now I’ve been getting so many calls in Spanish from the district about the coronavirus, why couldn’t they do that?”
An online Change.org petition started by Espinoza to “stop the closure of Joseph R. Perry Elementary School” has already gotten more than 1,800 signatures, and in both English and Spanish lays out the situation and parents’ grievances with the district. View it here.
“If there was a little more involvement or outreach to the community, that would have made a huge difference,” Salgado said.
Silvaggio in her comments urged school board members to move forward with the “tough decision” to close Perry. “The families of this district deserve the stability that moving forward will provide when COVID-19 has passed. Revisiting this school closure a year from now will only cause more anxiety and stress.”
Parents at Perry said closing the school would negatively affect families where transportation is an issue. Some students whose parents work during the day have to walk for a portion of their commute, and that commute might be affected if they end up at a different school that’s farther away.
“Many of us have to go to work super early, and I don’t even have time to drop my kid off at the bus stop, so my mom does it for me,” Espinoza said. “Many families here don’t even drive.”
Susana Gonzalez said she already had to quit her job in September, when school started, because her boss wouldn’t let her change her schedule to afternoon shifts so she could get her kids to Perry on time in the morning.
Some families at Perry not only have limited time due to work hours, Gonzalez said, “but they don’t have the reliable transportation to take their kids and drop them off.”
Perry’s closure “would require these students to travel further to attend their newly assigned school and incur additional costs for this travel,” said Thrift-Viveros in his letter, adding “Perry also has the highest concentration of socioeconomically-disadvantaged students in the district.”
Kyle Kason, another member of the school district task force who supported Perry’s closure, in public comments at an April 14 school board meeting said it “would affect the least amount of students” and that he didn’t believe “there are any elementary students walking two miles to school in this district.”
Perry’s 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.”
Salgado said the lack of enrollment at Perry doesn’t reflect the quality of the school. “My sister went there, and now she’s a nurse. That should speak volumes on the education Perry provides.”
Espinoza said the school has provided “so many resources, not only for my kids, but I went there when I was ten years old and didn’t speak English at all. They helped us a lot through English language programs.”
Gonzalez said she’s concerned with her son transferring to a school that doesn’t have as many kids of the same background or cultural experience as hers. “When I moved to Huntington Beach and went to elementary schools here, I endured a lot of racism. So stuff like that makes me worry about my son.”
“I don’t want him to worry about being different from other kids,” she said.
Ena Showaker, a Perry parent and president of school’s Parent Teacher Association, said she couldn’t speak more highly of the teachers and staff at the school.
“We had nothing but the most amazing experiences,” she said in a phone interview Friday, adding she’s not “seeing the hurt that other people are” because her husband works and she’s able to stay at home to care for her kids.
But she said if the district closes the school, her trust in the district will be eroded to the extent that she’ll pull her kids out for homeschooling.
“If we find out that they’re closing Perry Tuesday, I will be going forward up for homeschooling and pulling both my children out of this district,” she said.
In an April 13 written public comment to the school board, Perry Elementary 5th Grader James Martinez said “every teacher at Perry is kind and fair to every student.”
“They take the time to get to know all of the students in the school, not just the ones in their class. The teachers at Perry listen to students and always want what’s best for us,” Martinez said.
He added it’s not just the teachers who are kind at Perry: “it’s everyone.”
“It makes me sad that my own brother and many other students won’t be able to have those great memories if Perry is closed,” Martinez wrote. “Please don’t close Perry or anyone else’s school.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.