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Beverly Hills school leaders set a lofty goal: Raise $1 million in one week to stave off cuts

A weeklong fundraiser with a $1-million target is under way in Beverly Hills, where parents and educators are trying to maintain small class sizes and arts programs in the 4,700-student school system.

May 03, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Dana Young, center, on Monday reminds a fellow El Rodeo School parent, Rachel Fogel, to turn in an envelope for the Beverly Hills Unified School District's fundraising campaign. Campaign organizers hope to raise $1 million in one week.
Dana Young, center, on Monday reminds a fellow El Rodeo School parent, Rachel… (Christina House, For The…)

Even by Beverly Hills standards, the idea is rich: Raise $1 million in one week to bail out a tiny public school system that is thriving but still lacks immunity from the financial ills plaguing California's schools.

The fundraiser, which kicked off Monday, is meant to spare Beverly Hills Unified about two dozen layoffs. So far, Beverly Hills has been able to maintain class sizes of 20 in the early grades and 29 in the upper grade levels; neighboring behemoth L.A. Unified, which has laid off thousands and is poised to lay off thousands more, passed a budget that calls for 30 students per class in the lower grades and numbers that move sharply upward from there.

Beverly Hills Unified, with 4,700 students, has four schools that serve kindergarten through eighth grade students and one high school. About three-quarters of student enrollment is white, followed by Asians at 13%. About 8% of students qualify for subsidized meals.

The middle grade students have instrumental music, choral music, musical theater and foreign languages. A fulltime art teacher works at each campus. The high school has a production studio, a pool, a mini-observatory and eight counselors.

"We have a great school district," said Jennifer Terrell Schwartz, co-chair of the Beverly Hills PTA Council. "We've got to keep it great. Our kids are so fortunate."

"Imagine the high school which graduated Albert Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, Nic Cage, Carrie Fisher, Alicia Silverstone and David Schwimmer — to name just a few — suddenly understaffed in performing arts," an email pitch begins. The roll call of celebrities, artists and intellectuals builds from there.

On Monday morning, eight parent volunteers collared adults walking children to El Rodeo School or using the drop-off lane. In class, teachers handed students contribution envelopes that all parents are supposed to sign and return, whether they donate or not. The foundation also hired a company to distribute donation requests to every residence.

"Campaigns have urgency," said organizer Jonathan Prince, 50, a veteran television writer and producer who chairs the Beverly Hills Education Foundation. "You've got to cry fire if there is a fire."

The school system has escaped harsh cuts so far, in part because state rules can require districts in prosperous communities to rely mostly on local property taxes, said Assistant Supt. Alex Cherniss. That formula alone boosted district coffers by about 15%. The city of Beverly Hills also kicks in $10 million annually.

But a drop in property values meant less money came in than budgeted. And the state's remaining contribution also came in lower than planned. Officials approved $2.2 million in cuts to a $50-million budget. The district cut $500,000 in nonteaching positions and notified 23 teachers and administrators that they could be laid off.

Board member Myra Lurie said that deteriorating finances could require further cuts. She wants to see employee unions make concessions, as unions have elsewhere. Teachers union leader Mark Frenn said it's premature to consider moves that would demoralize employees or diminish programs.

If successful, the "One Campaign" will save counselors; specialists for disabled students; an elementary school technology teacher; middle school instrumental music teachers; and at the high school, the journalism teacher, a performing arts teacher and custodial staff.

The initiative, which includes entreaties from administrators, was formally announced at last week's annual fundraiser for the local education foundation. "Founding families" already were on the hook for $1,500 for this event; the latest sales pitch immediately inspired $80,000 in pledges from 400 parents in attendance.

"Wow," said Jo Loss, president of the California State PTA, when told of the one-week, $1-million goal. "That's very impressive."

When told that the latest effort adds to donations that already total more than $1 million annually, Loss was almost speechless.

"Wow," she repeated.

"I would love to see the people in Beverly Hills also direct their energy to letting their legislators know what every child needs," said Loss, who represents the Castro Valley Unified School District in Northern California. "So the kids in Contra Costa and Compton have the same opportunities."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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