Q&A: Chris Steinhauser is sorry he gave your kid so much homework

Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, 60, was appointed in 2002. He is the longest-serving big-city school superintendent in the state and one of the longest serving in the nation.

You’ve taught almost four years back in the 1980s. Do you see former students?

I was at Von’s and I ran into a former student. She had three children and her two oldest have graduated from Millikan and now she’s a preschool teacher. I told her I’m sorry I gave you so much homework. My views on homework have drastically changed. There’s no evidence to show it (works). It’s one of those old urban myths. It’s about quality, it’s not about quantity. You know, I believed at the time it was the right thing to do.

Families used to be able to ride bikes and hang out in their neighborhood elementary and middle schools after hours. Now fences ring every school. Was that a district initiative?

That was by the wishes of the community. They came to the board. It’s what they wanted, after several shootings in the nation, unfortunately. They came to the board, they came to parent forums. We did a study and we told the board it would be $11 million (the district used Measure E bond money).

We don’t have resources to hire security guards (on every campus). Now the biggest complaints I get are, “I want my campus open.”

We’re taking the concerns of everyone very seriously. I’m really upfront about this. I hear from them, “Chris, you’ll have to guarantee my kid’s safety 100 percent.” Well, guess what? We can’t do that. What we do is do everything in our power to stop this. The downside is the schools won’t be open on the weekends.

What are the biggest challenges for the district now?

I’d put it in two buckets. One is continuing to close those opportunity and achievement gaps. I think the district’s done a great job. The other part is, how do you maintain the proper level of reserves to prepare you for that dark day that’s coming. We’re in a very long recovery. In 2008 we lost $330 million in a three-year period. A hundred million a year. But the bottom line is I had to lay off people. Some lost their house.

You cried at a meeting when it happened.

I did. I knew these people, I see these people in church, I see them in the grocery store. I told them this would never happen again on my watch. We had these class-size reductions that were not fully funded by the state. Now … I’ve learned not to spend all the money that comes in. I have not spent all the money I’ve had coming in. My reserve is $216 million. I’m required to have $20 million. When we have new money come in, I cap myself at 80 percent. I do not spend all the money that comes in. I do five-year budgets.

But every year I lose $21 million (due to declining enrollments). I track where our kids go. About one-third leave the state.

Two years ago, Toyota left the state, Nissan, a few years before, they went to Tennessee. Folks are moving to the Inland Empire. My street alone, houses go for $800,000. Some for $1 million. That’s crazy! The biggest losses are in downtown neighborhoods. There’s not a lot of kids moving in. We’ve seen a little growth on the east side; people moving in with kids.

Why the dinnertime robo calls to parents for grades, absences, everything?

You can always turn those off. I had a guy complain to me, ‘I get so many calls from the district.’ You can turn those off any time.

Long Beach Unified By the Numbers

First day of school for 2019-2020: Aug. 28

STUDENT ENROLLMENT

  • 71,800 Pre-K to High School

STUDENT ETHNICITY

  • 57.3% Hispanic
  • 12.1% African American
  • 12.4% White
  • 6.9% Asian
  • 4.7% Multiple Races
  • 2.6% Decline to State
  • 2.8% Filipino
  • 1.2% Pacific Islander
  • 0.1% American Indian/Alaskan Native
  • 12.3% English Language Learners
  • 65% Socioeconomically Disadvantaged

FACILITIES

  • 85 schools in Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill and Avalon (Catalina Island)

BUDGET

  • $931 million operating budget for 2019-20

Source: LBUSD

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Barbara Kingsley-Wilson is a full-time lecturer at California State University, Long Beach and an adviser to the campus’s student run newspaper, the Daily 49er. A journalist with over 20 years in the field, she continues to write and spends her summers as a general assignment reporter for the Long Beach Post. When she’s not drilling her pupils on the details of AP style, she’s likely practicing her downward dog or traversing the city perched atop her mountain bike.
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