Whether to open up La Cañada kindergarten classes to more non-residential students as part of a long-term effort to maintain high school programs was hotly debated Tuesday night, with residents and parents sharing views on both sides.
The discussion, which stemmed from an item on the agenda of the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board meeting, came in response to Superintendent Wendy Sinnette's request for direction on whether to increase the cap for permit student enrollment in kindergarten from 25% to as high as 40% to fill underpopulated classes. Low kindergarten enrollment, Sinnette said, could ultimately affect high school enrollment and, consequently, the menu of programs and activities offered there.
"I did not mean to be incendiary with my request," the superintendent prefaced her report. "Along with the community, I value our community schools. (But) there are some hard decisions that need to be made."
The current cap restricts permit enrollment to 15% of the entire district, and 25% within each grade level. This helps the district maintain a community-centered approach to learning and programs.
Meanwhile, although the average population target for each grade level is 250, only 122 kindergartners are enrolled for 2013-14. Board President Scott Tracy said he felt confident that number would grow as the new school year dawned, but that the issue deserves attention.
"Wendy has no vested interest in a 40% cap — that simply was a number calculated to engage in conversation," Tracy said, clarifying that there were currently only 65 permit applications for kindergarten next year, far below the 40% mark.
Parent Leslie Helbing said perhaps it's time to acknowledge a nationwide population decline and tailor high school offerings accordingly.
"The world is changing, and our community is changing," Helbing said. "And we're hanging on to a dream that we're going to have 250 kids in every [grade]. We can be great, and we can be smaller."
Former school board member Cindy Wilcox called the high school programs a vital part of the educational experience and suggested letting more kids from the outside in.
"Please, please bring in kids that keep those programs," she said. "I think we think we're doing a favor to all these families who want to get in. But it's our kids who are benefiting. It's about your kids — it's not about those permit kids."
Kevin Ehrhart, a parent and former member of the La Cañada Educational Foundation, attended the meeting in part because a misprint in the agenda stated Sinnette's recommendation was that the board "approve staff's request to increase the grade level permit cap," as opposed to a request for direction.
There needs to be more conversation between the district and parents before action is taken, Ehrhart said, as the issue touches on deeper philosophical questions of identity, long-term goals and changing demographic realities.
"Are we willing to make the changes that have to be made if we want to have the kind of high school we have (now)?" he asked. "This is an issue that a lot of people would want to weigh in on and would have a lot of opinions about."
Although some board members expressed a desire to keep the conversation alive, all agreed now was not the time to raise the cap.
Board member Joel Peterson expressed concern that changes made now could have an adverse effect on the district's upcoming parcel tax survey.
"This could be a lightning rod that could skew the surveys we're doing," he said.
Fellow board member Susan Boyd agreed, saying the district badly needs a new parcel tax to replace the $900,000 in annual funding it stands to lose when the current parcel tax expires June 2014. Still, she suggested something be done now to prevent the diminishment of high school programs.
Ultimately, the board directed Sinnette to provide copies of the most recent demographic study conducted, and information from a report given on the feasibility of full-day kindergarten. There is no plan to revisit the matter in the near-term, according to Tracy.
The board also voted 3-2 to sign a two-year contract for child-care services with the Child Educational Center, to be renewed after one year. Members Blumenfeld and Peterson voted against it, saying the Request for Proposal process may have been unfairly skewed in favor of the incumbent provider and should be further scrutinized and improved upon.
The district also acknowledged outstanding educators at all school sites in recognition of May 8 as Day of the Teacher, and members and advisers of Palm Crest Elementary School's robotics team, 2% Milk, which recently placed at a competition in Anaheim in April.
Sinnette delivered a presentation on progress being made toward meeting the district's goals, and board members approved a resolution speaking out against Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to restructure school financing using a Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that would cause LCUSD to become the fifth-lowest state-funded district in California.