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Q & A : Challenges Are Budget and Morale

February 23, 1992|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

* Darline P. Robles, 42, named superintendent of the Montebello Unified School District last week. She had been acting superintendent since July.

* Claim to fame: As interim superintendent, she led the state's 12th largest public school district from the shoals of bankruptcy. Under her leadership, the district cut programs, reduced pay, increased class sizes, converted elementary school librarians to classroom teachers, and laid off about 200 employees, most of them teachers. The cuts slashed $28 million--about 22%--from the school system's $101.5-million budget. Most parents and employees stuck by the popular Robles, agreeing that the cuts were a necessary evil.

* Background: The bilingual administrator grew up in East Los Angeles and Montebello. She earned a bachelor's degree in history from Cal State Los Angeles (1972) and a master's in education from Claremont Graduate School. She is a doctoral candidate in education at USC. Her entire professional career has been with the Montebello school system, where she began as a teacher in 1973. She directed the district's bilingual program (1979-81) and worked as principal of Washington Elementary (1981-85) and Montebello Intermediate (1985-88), before becoming an assistant superintendent (1988-91).

* Interviewer: Times Staff Writer Howard Blume.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face?

A: I think the biggest challenge is the same as when I was appointed as acting superintendent: getting the budget ready for '92-'93 and keeping morale up and keeping the team effort, the team morale, going.

Q: How does the financial picture look?

A: I see 1993-94 as an opening where we're going to see some breathing room. . . . I've got a sense the recession is bottoming out now. I'm looking to have a balanced budget and our required $2.6 million or 2% reserve by September, 1993.

In Montebello, you have a board that wants to make sure Montebello stays solvent. They're not going to give up the district to the state. That commitment is important.

Q: Given the budget cuts and the financial predicament, is the average student getting as good an education as, say, three years ago?

A: I think our teachers are giving the kids the best education possible. I think we're as good or better than ever. First of all, we have experienced teachers, committed teachers. The reason I can say that we're doing a good job is that I've been in the classroom.

Our parents aren't shy. They are . . . not going to put up with bad teaching. They want their kids to succeed.

Q: How are the teachers dealing with the larger class sizes and cuts in supplies?

A: It's frustrating for the teachers. Their morale has good days and bad days because of the financial situation. We've tried to keep people informed so when they walk in during the morning to the classroom they can forget about those issues and work with the kids.

Q: How do the problems in Montebello compare with the problems in education statewide?

A: Your urban districts like Montebello are going through the same problems. All we're going to have soon is the principal, the teachers and the kids. Some districts started cutting earlier. We started last year. At a recent state meeting of school superintendents, I didn't speak to anyone that wasn't having a budget difficulty.

Q: Given that you had to recommend employee layoffs and drastic cuts to programs, how did you manage to preserve your popularity with parents and employee groups?

A: It's just like anything else. One person isn't responsible for everything. Just like one person isn't responsible for success.

I'm not the kind of person that blames people. If I don't point fingers and I model that kind of behavior, then I think other people won't point the finger of blame.

I have worked with parents so much in my career that parents do know me. I live in the community. I have family in the community. I know people in the community. There isn't the aura of: Who is this person?

Q: What went wrong with the district finances?

A: We took some calculated risks in some areas that didn't come to fruition. We made some bad decisions without enough information, making some assumptions that ended up not being in our favor. We were deficit spending and we knew that, and we can't do that anymore.

Now we're taking everything that could possibly go wrong into account and operating with that.

Q: What have you learned from the past financial practices of the district that will guide you in how you handle the budget?

A: What we are doing is sharing with the board and the public the worst-case scenario. That's the $12 million in cuts we're looking at for next year.

People kept telling us, "Don't keep changing the numbers on us to make the situation look better than it is for as long as possible." I listened to them. In most organizations, you're trying to avoid the negative, but then the negative catches up with you.

Q: How prepared were you for the job when you became interim superintendent in July?

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