Huntington Beach school officials will shutter an elementary school serving the highest concentration of Latino and English-learning kids in its district to save money, despite opposition by parents and activist groups and the possibility of a discrimination lawsuit.
Editor’s Note: As Orange County’s only nonprofit & nonpartisan newsroom, Voice of OC brings you the best, most comprehensive local Coronavirus news absolutely free. No ads, no paywalls. We need your help. Please, click here to make a tax-deductible donation today to support your local news.
Over a video chat public meeting, the Huntington Beach City School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to close Joseph R. Perry Elementary school — a move critics said would impact working parents while supporters said the school has seen little enrollment.
School officials say the closure will cut down on operating costs and buy them time to address the district’s budget, currently projected to be at a $6.9 million deficit in future years. They also said it would help ward off the threat of the community losing its grip on classroom decisions and school programs.
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, critics say the district’s been circling Perry for years because of its population of students with low socioeconomic status.
Board member Shari Kowalke said while the “community feels that it was a done deal, I can say I’ve looked at all the options, and what’s most important to me is keeping the programs that make our district great.”
“Anyone can skew this to meet their agenda,” she said, later adding that “we have no option but to close the school, and I do feel that Perry is the best choice for this district.”
Board member Paul Morrow before the vote recalled “requesting that we as a board move slowly and look at all schools … this board chose to move in a different direction.”
He was referring to the fact that the task force the district assembled in February was at first given the option to look at two schools for closure. But the task force narrowed in on its options to recommending only that Perry be shuttered.
The task force has been criticized for lacking key representation of the neighborhoods Perry’s closure would most directly impact.
“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.
Thrift-Viveros in a Tuesday phone interview before the meeting said the lawsuit is “a strong possibility.
“It’s not guaranteed, but we strongly hope that the school board will vote to keep Perry open so that any sort of legal recourse wouldn’t be necessary,” he said, adding “it is a case we are keeping an eye on and keeping track of,” he added.
Morrow before the vote said it’s his hope that when a school closure next comes before the board, “we can do (the process) differently.”
School district superintendent Gregory Haulk defended the task force’s decision and process. “That committee did very solid work and studied a lot of factors.”
He laid down the urgency of the district’s financial situation, calling Huntington Beach City School District “one of the lowest funded districts in Southern California” and the “lowest funded in Orange County.”
More than 40 people spoke in public comments — many of them opposed to rumors they had been hearing about Peterson Elementary being up for closure next. Peterson’s closure wasn’t on the agenda, and school board members didn’t confirm or deny the rumors during the meeting. Nearly all of the public commenters opposed a school closure in general.
“Why are you targeting specifically Perry and not other schools? My siblings and I all attended Perry when we first arrived in this country and we did not know a word of English,” said parent Valeria Espinoza in her written public comments Tuesday. “Perry helped my family and I overcome a language barrier and many obstacles that we had to face as immigrants.”
Espinoza said she went to “every single apartment in my neighborhood to let them know what was occurring,” adding they were all “angered and irritated by the fact that the district did not take the time to send a letter or give a phone call to them in Spanish.”
“I was distraught to find out that so many parents in my community were not aware of this alleged school closure,” she said.
For a deeper look at how parents say this school closure will impact them, click here.
Critics say the shuffle will impact families who work during the day if kids who usually walk for part of their commute can no longer do so because their new school is farther.
Heather Gilbert, a teacher at Perry, in public comment said families at Perry have to pay for their kids to use the bus, and noted concern with parents of lower socioeconomic status — who didn’t have to send their kids to school on the bus before — who may have to pay for the bus now or adjust their work schedules to drive their kids.
The basic charge per student is $224 per semester to ride the bus. For students who qualify for free lunch, the bus pass is $30 per semester.
Gilbert also said prejudice toward the school “has been occurring from the district and community members for years,” adding that while Perry may have declining enrollment, it’s only because of the district’s policy allowing transfers out of the school.
“Parents have been pulling kids out and the district has allowed it,” she said, adding that Perry’s test scores have only been suffering because people are transferring out in favor of other schools with newer facilities.
Lastly, Gilbert argued there’s good risk in sending former Perry students to a different school now, while a future school closure remains a possibility.
“Perry students should not be sent to a school that might be on the chopping block next year,” Gilbert said.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.