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Inglewood schools move to use $90M languishing in bond fund

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson attends the first meeting of an oversight committee that will act as watchdog over $90 million in school improvement bonds.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson attends the first meeting of an Inglewood Unified oversight committee. The panel will act as the watchdog over $90 million in school improvement bond spending.

The Inglewood Unified School District took a step Thursday toward cleaning up, renovating, and improving its dilapidated school facilities.

School officials installed an 11-member citizen committee that will oversee the district as it taps into a $90 million bond fund for school improvements. Voters approved the bonds in November 2012.

The money has gone unspent despite unsafe and unsanitary school conditions detailed last year in a KPCC investigation.

“Tonight is a milestone,” Don Brann, the state appointed trustee who runs the school district, said at a Thursday evening meeting attended by Tom Torlakson, the California superintendent of public instruction.

The state took over Inglewood Unified in September 2012 after the school board asked for a $55 million bailout loan. Torlakson appointed Brann as the district's third trustee in 2013.

Under the takeover, the district's elected school board members act as advisors to the state trustee.

Brann announced in June that he plans to leave his post sometime this year, raising worries among some in Inglewood that progress in fixing the district will be slowed.

Torlakson told KPCC he won't name a successor to Brann until after schools resume in the fall.

“What we are doing is meeting with various groups to find out what the qualities they are looking for in the next administrator, what they think the strengths of the district are today, what they think the weaknesses of the district are and how that could be addressed by the new administrator,” Torlakson said.

Torlakson has been criticized by some in Inglewood who say he hasn't appointed a trustee knowledgeable about the needs of Inglewood's schools. The district largely serves Latino and African-American students while Brann is white.

While the new oversight committee could not approve or stop bond spending, it would serve as a watchdog over improvements approved by the state trustee. California law requires the committee be in place before any of the bond money can be spent.

School Board Chair Margaret Richards-Bowers told the bond committee and school officials that improvements to the district's facilities should have begun soon after the 2012 election when voters approved the bonds.

“This should really start immediately. We have the money, we have a committee now,” she said.

Parent attending Thursday's meeting said the changes can’t happen soon enough. They said parents have long waited for improvements to Inglewood schools, and they haven’t happened.

About the need for improvements to district schools, Torlakson said: “This is about respecting students, and you respect students by providing them school facilities, you tell them that school is important and education is important by having great facilities that they can learn in.”

Brann said he and previous school leaders gave priority to more urgent matters, such as balancing the district’s budget.

He didn't give a start date for the first facilities project, but said all but one of the district’s 16 schools need major repairs. He said he and his team have come up with a list of improvement projects that include the total rebuilding of Inglewood High School.

Kelly Iwamoto, president of the teachers’ union, said she’s worried new leadership will derail progress in the district and questioned whether the next trustee will agree with the improvement plans.