Bellflower school district fights county over finances

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By Arnold Adler

Contributing Writer

DOWNEY — In an unusual legal case, the Los Angeles County Office of Education is, in effect, telling the Bellflower Unified School District to stop paying its bills.

A lawsuit was filed June 8 in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Downey-based agency that oversees the operation of 80 school districts in Los Angeles County.

The suit will be moved to a Superior Court in San Diego but no date has been determined for the next court hearing.

In the suit, the County Office of Education alleges that the California Board of Education has voided Bellflower Unified’s status as a financially independent school district as of July 1, 2019, and therefore the district cannot legally be paying its bills, including the salary of Bellflower Superintendent Tracy McSparren and the stipends the five members of the Bellflower school board receive.

According to the suit, because of concerns about the school district’s alleged financial mismanagement, state law calls for the county agency to appoint a caretaker and handle all financial issues, including McSparren’s $19,000 a month salary and stipends of about $500 a month to board members, which would be placed in an escrow account.

The suit is in error as the school district has not formally been stripped of its ability to pay its bills, under state law, said Costa Mesa attorney Eric Bathen, who is representing the district in the matter.

“Bellflower Unified’s financial condition is good and, in fact, the board has approved a three-year budget,” he said.

“This kind of thing has never happened before,” Bathen added. “With all the other districts in the county with financial problems, the county office should not be concerned with Bellflower.”

He said the county’s fear that Bellflower won’t be able to pay its bills in the future is based on an inaccurate and informal report by a consulting firm.

Besides McSparren, the suit names school board President Jerry Cleveland and members Laura Sanchez-Ramirez, Renita Armstrong, Richard Downing and Debbie Cuadros.

Asked to comment, a spokesperson for the County Office of Education provided comments in the lawsuit by Deputy Superintendent Lisa Constencio.

Constencio said the Office of Education bases its determination that the Bellflower district may not meet its financial obligations for the current year on the district’s ongoing failure to comply with Office of Education’s oversight authority and the state Department of Education’s revocation of the district’s fiscal independence.

“As a result of the district’s ongoing failure to comply with [the county’s] oversight authority, ongoing unauthorized expenditure of public funds, and refusal to provide LACOE access to its fiscal records, LACOE is unable to verify that the district is able to meet its financial obligations for the current year, and may in fact be unable to meet those obligations.”

In the suit, the Office of Education said it would immediately take actions as provided for in state Education Code, Section 42127.6, in a letter to McSparren Oct. 1.

Those actions included assigning a fiscal advisor, with stay and rescind authority, to the district; withholding compensation for the school board and superintendent until certain milestones are met and requiring regular updates from the district.

The Office of Education spokesperson, Margo Minecki, also cited comments in the lawsuit from Chief Financial Officer Patricia Smith that the salary withholding would begin Oct. 15.

“The Office of Education “has directly asked Bellflower USD to withhold the salaries,” Minecki told a reporter Oct.16. “Because the district stated that October salaries had already been paid, we have asked for the salaries to be held beginning with the Nov. 1 payroll.

“They can’t withhold salaries,” Bathen, the district’s attorney, said. “They have a different accounting system.”

Bathen added that while the state Board of Education denied the district’s appeal of the lawsuit Oct. 1, the district was never specifically told to stop issuing checks.

He also maintains that the county has always had access to the district’s records.

Ina letter sent to the Bellflower district, Duardo said the California Department of Education had accepted additional documentation submitted by each of the parties.

Based on a thorough review of the appeal, Duardo’s letter said, the district’s appeal was denied.

Bathen contends that the state’s denial of the district appeal does not mean the district has lost its independent financial status.

That apparently will be decided in the lawsuit.

The Bellflower Unified School District has about 11,000 students and covers parts of Bellflower, Cerritos and Lakewood.

Arnold Adler is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers Norwalk, Downey, Paramount and Bellflower.