Torrance Opposition to “Sanctuary” Bill SB 54 Shrouded in Irony and Mystery

Local blogger and conservative activist Arthur Schaper recently broke the news that the City of Torrance opposes Senate Bill 54. The news makes Torrance one of only 4 California cities that have expressed formal opposition to the so called “Sanctuary” bill. The other three cities are West Covina, Glendora, and Camarillo.

Torrance’s opposition to SB 54 is ironic in that, as recently as a few months ago, the City continued to maintain a longstanding police department policy of not honoring ICE detainer requests. That “sanctuary policy” appears to be in direct conflict with a recent Executive Order on the subject issued by President Trump. Torrance’s decision on SB 54 therefore puts it in the awkward position of being opposed to California becoming a “sanctuary” state, while at the same time maintaining a policy that could define it as a “sanctuary” city.

The mysterious process by which the City arrived at the decision is also noteworthy as the matter was never brought before the City Council for a vote. For that reason, it is unclear who within the City made the policy decision to oppose the bill. The lack of formal action by the Council also begs the question of who actually holds the authority to speak for the City and its residents on matters such as this.

Other opposing cities, such as West Covina and Glendora, held press conferences and debated the issue openly. Torrance held no public hearing and made no public announcement opting instead to quietly submit a letter to Speaker of Assembly Anthony Rendon.

The decision not to make a public announcement is curious given that many activists and local residents attended council meetings in recent months urging the Council to take a public stance opposing the bill. One of those activists, Joseph Turner, even appeared before the Council and threatened to mount a campaign to defund the City by repealing Utility User Tax revenues should the Council not act.

Turner’s appeal before the Council came on May 16th, 2017. Torrance’s letter to the Speaker of the Assembly is dated May 15th, 2017. Thus, in a strange confluence of events Torrance had, just one day prior to Turner’s appearance, already taken a formal position on SB 54 that agreed with Turner. Yet, oddly, all of the City officials at the meeting chose to remain silent on the matter instead of simply informing Turner and the public of their decision.

The letter declaring Torrance’s position was signed by Mayor Furey and reads:

“I am writing to express our opposition to Senate Bill 54, which would limit law enforcement abilities to protect all individuals regardless of immigration status … Public safety is the primary concern of local law enforcement, not immigration. However, SB 54 restricts partnerships between local law enforcement and federal enforcement agencies, imposes mandatory reporting requirements, and hinders investigations by federal law enforcement agencies within local jails; taken together this bill would severely restrict law enforcement abilities to protect the public.”

The letter also expressed concern that passing SB 54 could lead to the potential loss of federal funding as the current federal administration has indicated that it intends to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary” states.

TUSD at Risk of Not Meeting Future Financial Obligations

A recent financial report submitted to the California Department of Education (CDE) by TUSD received a qualified certification indicating that the district may not meet its future financial obligations. The CDE requires that school districts file bi-annual reports on the status of their financial health. These reports are certified as either positive, qualified, or negative. A qualified certification is assigned when a district may not meet its financial obligations for the current or two subsequent fiscal years.

TUSD Deficit Spending

TUSD’s current budget, approved last Monday, forecasts that the District will continue running large deficits over the next several years. In the current year, TUSD ran a $9.5 Million deficit. The projected deficit amount over the next three years is a hefty $22.5 Million.

The deficit spending is putting a huge dent in what was once a very healthy reserve. As recently as Fiscal Year 2013-14 the District had a budgeted $46.1 Million in reserves. The forecast now indicates the reserve will plummet to only $5.2 Million by FY 2019-20. That figure is $2.3 Million below the state mandated minimum.

Just prior to his retirement last year, former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Stabler explained that the District was intentionally spending down the reserve at the behest of the School Board. Alluding to why the Board took such action he said, “It’s the unions that don’t want us to have a reserve because they want to spend the money on salary increases.”

TUSD’s approved budget also included 29 financial indicators that were reviewed to determine fiscal health. Of those 29, 12 were marked as potential areas of concern for fiscal solvency purposes that should be carefully reviewed. Among those areas of concern were:

  • Salaries and Benefits;
  • Available Reserves;
  • Long-Term Debt Commitments;
  • Post Employment Benefits Other than Pensions;
  • Status of Labor Agreements; and
  • Declining Enrollment

During the budget hearing, Board member Michael Wermers commented that the District had never done a qualified budget before. Wermers also noted that other local districts were not facing similar financial challenges and asked whether the District was being overly conservative in its estimates or if things would really get a little hairy in the next couple of years.

In response, superintendent Dr. Mannon attributed the budget challenges to major issues in the state with regard to pension contributions and increases in special education costs. He also insinuated that other Districts not projecting similar challenges to TUSD were either lucky or they were lying.

There are 1025 school districts in California. TUSD is one of 43 districts that received either a qualified or negative certification in CDE’s most recent report. The distinction puts TUSD among a grouping of only 4% of the districts in the state that received the worrisome qualified certification.

School Board Narrowly Extends Controversial Policy Allowing Local Schools to Fundraise for Personnel Expenses

The School Board narrowly approved an extension to a controversial policy that allows local school sites to raise funds to pay for personnel expenses. Had the extension not been approved it would have likely meant the end of elementary booster organizations like the Anza Eagle Education Alliance that were created to help raise funds for needed intervention teachers and other enrichment programs. The 3 to 2 vote followed a somewhat tense discussion, which is an uncommon occurrence for a generally chummy Board that typically passes everything by unanimous vote.

The policy in question was first enacted in 2010 at a time when the District was weathering an economic storm that resulted in deep budget cuts and a sizable reduction in the District’s teaching staff. School Board member Mark Steffen, a consistent critic of the policy, once again argued fervently against it stating that the fiscal conditions are no longer what they were back in 2010. He also added:

“I got to look at every kid and I can’t say look you guys over there have more dollars in your pocket … [so] I’m going to just let you buy a better education than these [other] guys can afford. We might as well have a private school or a charter school … I think it’s inherently wrong for the Board to allow that kind of segregation through finances.”

Board member Terry Ragins joined Steffens in voicing opposition to the policy by stating, “We are a unified district and we are not providing a unified and consistent set of resources to all of our students in all of our schools by allowing this.”

One of the yes votes, Board Member Don Lee commented that he wholeheartedly agreed with Steffens and said that if he could rewind the practice to back when it first started that he would say no, but that it this point he didn’t think they could put the genie back in bottle.

Another one of the yes votes, School Board member Michael Wermers offered his belief that, “we got problems coming financially,” further commenting that “I would dance with the devil to keep funding in our schools.”

When the policy was first enacted Wermers had expressed his uneasiness about it by stating, “Frankly, it gives me the creeps, but in dire, desperate times, we have to make dire, desperate decisions.”

The other Board Member Martha Deutsch, who rarely speaks during Board meetings, was silent on this topic as well, but did vote yes joining Wermers and Lee in the majority.

Only a handful of the elementary schools in the district take advantage of the policy. Riviera appears to be the greatest beneficiary having raised $421,000 in the last three years that it spent on intervention, science, computer, and music teachers. The funds raised by other schools pale in comparison. Victor raised $146,000, Anza $110,500, and Seaside $86,000. None of the other elementary schools raised funds nearing those amounts while Adams, Carr, Lincoln, Torrance, Towers, Wood, and Yukon didn’t raise any funds at all towards personnel expenses.

During the meeting, Ragins also said she was troubled that some of the schools raising funds were not following the minimum set of requirements that the School Board had set out. School Board member Don Lee pressed Ragins to elaborate on that comment, but Ragins would not say more expressing hesitation due to the public setting. She did, however, suggest that the District was investigating the policy violations.

Those procedures as outlined by the policy are as follows:

  1. Funds must be deposited in full with Torrance Unified School District prior to submission of any personnel requisition.
  2. All site decisions must have the approval of the site principal.
  3. All personnel rules and regulations must be followed.
  4. Personnel, paid the contract hourly rate, may be hired for intervention and/or enrichment programs.
  5. Classified personnel may be hired as long as they are paid on an hourly basis.

The extension of the policy approved by the Board will sunset 30 June 2020.

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