EL SEGUNDO — In a race with few other issues, two of the five candidates running for the school board here have turned to the district's shaky financial standing to persuade voters that the district needs a change.
With less than $200,000 in reserve, a declining enrollment and teachers who are demanding a 12% pay raise, the four-school district teeters on the edge of financial insecurity, according to challengers Dennis Martin and John Schmidt.
The two are competing against incumbents Ruth B. Parks and Janice M. Cruikshank and newcomer Dave Jones--who are running as a slate--for three unpaid seats on the board. The resignation of board member Robert Morton last spring left one seat vacant. Morton took an out-of-state job.
Parks, Cruikshank and Jones maintain that the district is doing what it can in the face of budget constraints. They say the board has used partnerships with industry and the city to reinstate programs and services that were cut several years ago.
"We've come a long way from 1980, when I first came on the school board," said Cruikshank, 56. "We had a school closure, layoffs, programs dropped, services eliminated. There was dissension left over from a teachers' strike in 1976. The administration was not up to par.
"Now we have a super administrator, teacher morale has improved, we opened a continuation school this year and we've got some good programs," she said. "I feel we're really on the upswing.
"Our biggest problem is money. If we can't find money, we may have to make some cuts. I'm not sitting here pretending that the good fairy's going to give us gold dust. School districts just don't have many options when it comes to raising funds."
Be More Aggressive
Martin, 46, who has unsuccessfully campaigned several times for school board and City Council seats, counters that the board does have options and must be more aggressive about resolving the district's financial woes.
A county librarian in Hawthorne, Martin claims the district could raise an estimated $1.5 million yearly by leasing properties to the city that currently are used for free. He pointed to Beverly Hills as an example where schools have raised millions by charging the city for use of school properties.
"El Segundo uses virtually all school properties at different times," he said, "for everything from cable programs to Meals on Wheels. It's like an extension of city parks for them. If they had to buy that land it would be phenomenally expensive. There's no reason why the school district shouldn't make money from that."
But, he added, that money should not be used to raise teachers' salaries. Instead, he said, it should go toward buying computers for each of the district's 90 classrooms.
Tied to Computer Literacy
Martin said teachers' pay hikes should be tied to "how computer-literate they are; how well they use computers in the classroom."
Schmidt, on the other hand, believes the biggest challenge facing board members is "to make sure the teachers are the best" that can be acquired.
If elected, Schmidt, 41, said he intends to mount a "campaign blitz" on the community to convince residents that "if they want quality education, they need quality teachers, and if they want quality teachers they've got to pay for them. We've taken our teachers for granted for many years, when they are actually the most important part of the system."
A telecommunications manager, Schmidt says his management background qualifies him to "run the schools more like a business."
'Good Things Going On'
Incumbent Parks, 64, said that while the district's financial state "could be better," she believes that "overall, there are a lot of good things going on in the district."
"We've increased our art programs through participation with the Getty Institute for Visual Arts and the Dorothy Chandler Music Center," she said. "We also maintain good relations with industry, and that has helped us a lot."
In particular, she said, industry contributes heavily to the El Segundo Education Foundation and a number of corporations have given students the benefit of their expertise through the district's Adopt-a-Class program.
Parks, a retired district secretary, said that while she is concerned about the district's finances, leasing school properties is "not realistic."
"We proposed it several years ago, when we first saw the Beverly Hills model," she said, "and we got a very cool reception from the city. We can't do it without their OK, and it doesn't appear to be something they're interested in. The city is being very cautious with its money right now."
El Segundo has had budget problems several years running and this year tripled its employee head tax.
Candidate Jones, 49, co-founder of the Adopt-a-Class program in El Segundo, pointed to the program as an example of creative alternatives to fund raising.