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Schools Propose 'Devastating' Budget Cuts : Education: Officials at Montebello Unified, who say they have already cut expenses to the bone, are now axing 10% more. The objective is to prevent a state takeover of the district.

March 26, 1992|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEBELLO — The Montebello Unified School District, already decimated by massive program cuts and layoffs, faces $11.6 million in additional cuts next year and pink slips for another 200 employees.

The cutbacks, scheduled for a vote by the school board tonight, would slash about 10% from next year's projected $101-million budget.

"The cuts are devastating," Supt. Darline Robles said. "They're cuts that hit at the heart of what we know is good for the kids."

The proposed cuts for the state's 12th-largest school district include:

* Trimming security services by about a third, eliminating weekend police patrols and decreasing security officers' pay by 27%.

* Reducing the number of psychologists by half.

* Slashing nursing services by at least 77%, leaving 33,000 students with three nurses.

* Reassigning all middle and high school librarians to the classroom and replacing them with part-time library clerks. Elementary schools lost their librarians last year.

* Laying off nine bus drivers and busing pupils in grades 5 to 12 to school but not back home.

* Ending after-school programs other than league sports.

* Eliminating industrial arts and the middle school choral music program.

* Cutting more than 200 jobs. Dozens of remaining employees could face reduced hours. Those losing jobs include teachers, attendance supervisors, accountants, computer operators, drivers, groundskeepers, painters and custodians.

The district began dealing with its financial crisis last year, when the board cut about 22% of the budget and laid off about 200 employees, most of them non-tenured teachers.

This year, the percentage of cuts is lower, but the effect is more devastating, said Robles, a longtime district administrator who became superintendent in February. "This is deeper to the core. Last year we were able to cut some things far away from the classroom. We had some wiggle room. This year those options aren't there," she said.

The district will likely be operating bare-bones schools with little more than a principal, a skeleton clerical staff and teachers in charge of oversized classes, she said. District officials said this year's cuts would mark the low point for the school system. Administrators predicted that the district would gradually rebound, but a complete recovery is probably years away.

Before the financial crisis, every elementary school had a full-time librarian. The district was noted for developing bilingual and arts programs. Its teacher salaries were the county's highest.

By the late 1980s, however, the district was spending money faster than revenue increased. Administrators overestimated lottery revenue and spent money on construction projects without making sure of state reimbursement. Officials routinely exceeded their allotted budgets without being challenged, according to district and auditor reports.

Robles and Acting Business Manager Glenn Sheppard assumed their jobs with the district careening toward bankruptcy. They faced massive cuts or a state takeover. Board members say they will make whatever cuts are needed to maintain local control of the district.

The latest difficulties are exacerbated by problems facing all state school systems: increased insurance costs, declining revenues from the state lottery and state funding well below the level of inflation for the third consecutive year.

The district's unique financial burdens include payments on bonds sold to pay debts. The district is also bound by its teachers contract to reduce high school class size from an average of 40 to 37 students a class. That will require hiring more teachers in some areas. Class sizes still will remain among the largest in the state.

Many of the cuts were expected. A fiscal review committee of parents, teachers, administrators and other employees had suggested $8.3 million in reductions. Most became part of the superintendent's proposal.

Union officials praised the district for forming the review committee, but teachers union President Kathy Klein said the effort was too little, too late. She said the review committee should also have been given time to debate the superintendent's full list of cuts before the board votes on it.

Employees are upset about salary decreases this year and about the prospect of more layoffs. "We've given and given and given," said Carol Seare, executive board member of the union for non-teaching employees. 'The morale is at zero level. They're all worrying about their jobs. It's horrible."

Board member Paul Lopez, a former teacher, said the cuts would directly affect children. "We're talking about people. We're talking about programs. It's an unpleasant task, but it has to be done."

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