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Pasadena businesses step in to aid schools

With many of the city's wealthy sending their children to private schools, advocates are looking for ways to bolster finances, especially in a time of continuing budget cuts.

January 30, 2011|Steve Lopez

Bob's Big Boy has bought in. So have Old Towne Music, Big Mama's Rib Shack, Brookside Golf Club, Pie 'n Burger and Mijares restaurant.

Those businesses and dozens of others in Pasadena have written checks to support public education in the Pasadena Unified School District, and parents have vowed to support the establishments in return.

Yeah, sure, it sounds like that all-too-familiar story of parents going door to door, hat in hand, trying to fill the holes left by millions in budget cuts in recent years. But the story is bigger than that, with roots reaching back 40 years to forced busing and the white flight that followed.

Pasadena has what school district board member Scott Phelps called "a historic disconnect" between the city's powerbrokers, many of whom pay $20,000 to $30,000 a year to send their kids to private school, and a public school district in which three-fourths of the students are black or Latino and two-thirds of them qualify for a free or discounted lunch. As many of the city's wealthiest families pulled their kids out of public school to avoid forced busing, they also turned their backs on the school district.

Phelps told me a story he thinks is emblematic of the dismissive attitude many Pasadena leaders have toward the school district. City officials, he said, rejected the school system's request for a 10% break on its $3-million annual utility bill. But they had no trouble coming up with the identical amount — $300,000 — in car allowances for city managers, some of whom seldom leave City Hall on business.

"We've cut over $30 million from our budget the last three years," said Phelps, who thinks it's time the heavy hitters and major institutions in a city of great wealth show a little more respect and support for the schools, especially given significant test score improvements in recent years and other encouraging trends.

The schools tried turning to voters for help. But last year, Measure CC, which called for a $120 parcel tax to aid the schools, was defeated after the Chamber of Commerce board came out against it.

On election day, the measure got 53% of the vote, but it needed two-thirds to pass.

"I was extremely disappointed," said former chamber chair Bill Podley, a Realtor who thought the chamber's opposition was bad for business. "As a business person with three offices in the district, it's in our best interest to make sure the school system is as solid and strong as possible to attract residents."

Paul Little, chief executive officer of the chamber and a former city councilman, argues that CC's supporters weren't specific enough about what the money would be used for. He also rejects allegations by school proponents that the chamber, City Council and major institutions like the Tournament of Roses don't do enough to back the school district and its 18,000 students in Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre.

"I'm about to deliver an $8,000 royalty check to Pasadena High from fundraising we do every year over the new year," Little said Friday. At Muir High, he said, the chamber is linking students with local businesses for internships, and the City Council took over policing campuses to save the district money.

Even so, Peter Dreier, a school district parent and professor at Occidental College, sees a "tale of two cities" narrative in Pasadena, with a growing consolidation of wealth for some residents while others are being forced out by high rents and gentrification. He said the city councils in Santa Monica, Burbank and other cities do far more for their schools.

"The city of Pasadena has a world-class library system, just wonderful. And after Measure CC failed last year, the school board voted to close every library in the school district. It didn't have much choice. School libraries cost $1 million, and if city libraries assumed management of the public school libraries … we'd save the school district $1 million," Dreier said.

"If the city's parks and recs department managed school playgrounds as joint-use facilities, the district would save a couple million dollars."

Those are good ideas, and given the certainty of coming budget cuts throughout California, every city ought to be exploring relationships like those.

Dreier was a cofounder of Invest in PUSD Kids, which is made up of parents, teachers and others who are trying to put those topics — as well as a nominal hotel/motel tax to benefit schools — on the table at City Hall and throughout the community.

The group initially considered boycotting businesses that opposed Measure CC, but ditched that plan when school district parent Robert Niles recommended the opposite — supporting businesses willing to donate at least $150 a year to the Buy In.

"We've already got about 80 businesses signed up," said Niles, who runs a travel business at http://www.themeparkinsider.com.

Even if every business in Pasadena signed on, the money wouldn't begin to fill the budget hole, with millions more in cuts expected this year. But as Dreier put it, Buy In is more of a political organizing and marketing movement than a fundraising mechanism. And it's being supported by the respected Pasadena Education Fund, a nonprofit established back when busing began, which raises and donates millions each year to the school district.

"We need to counter the negativity that has existed over the years," said Podley, the Realtor, who gladly donated to Buy In. "Clearly there are various views on the subject, but I find it hard to believe anybody wouldn't want to support their local school district."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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