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$1.9-Billion Education Windfall Will Help Ease Years of School Neglect

August 07, 1995|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Back before the tsunami-like impact of the recession sent the California economy staggering, Palmdale teacher Marty Meeden had a Spanish-speaking aide in his classroom every day for more than an hour to help the few children not ready to learn in English. Today, more of his students need help, but the aide is available for only 25 minutes, four times a week, to help them with their reading and math.

Until 1991, every campus in the Montebello School District had its own librarian to keep collections updated and guide children to their favorite volumes. Today, children and their teachers are on their own, and there is little money for new books.

High schools in Irvine used to supply their marching bands with instruments for free, and riding the team bus to play at out-of-town football games was taken for granted. Now, parents have to pay fees for both.

And in Los Angeles, the hallways at Morningside Elementary School used to be mopped and the desks wiped daily; now, teachers say dust from unswept floors causes sinus problems and teachers have to supply detergent and rags for students to clean their own desks.

For the past four years, teachers and school districts across the state have been making do on no-growth budgets, watching their campuses slip into disrepair, their classrooms bulge with new students and their educational necessities--such as teachers' aides, field trips and even reading and math workbooks--disappear.

Today, some relief is on the way. The state budget signed last week by Gov. Pete Wilson includes a $1.9-billion windfall for schools and community colleges--enough to stop the slash-and-burn cycle and restore some of what has been lost.

The new money in the budget translates to about $315 per student. About a third of that is earmarked for one-time expenses, such as school building repairs and computer purchases. The rest can be used for continuing costs, such as raising salaries or hiring enough teachers to reduce class sizes, which have grown to be the largest in the nation.

And the allocation includes the schools' first cost-of-living increase in five years--an increase that is barely above the rate of inflation, but enough to raise the state from 42nd to 40th in the nation in per-pupil spending.

"I think it's really going to help the morale . . . not just for the teachers, but the administrators and parents," said Palmdale's Meeden, the president of the teachers union local.

But school officials are warning that even though it sounds like a lot of money--especially to parents who have been called on in the past to bankroll the basics by selling candy or contributing to bake sales--the demands on the new funds will greatly exceed the supply.

And the gains could be offset by federal budget cuts now being considered in Washington, especially in urban districts that rely on those federal funds for students who are poor or disabled or not fluent in English.

Still, education experts say the infusion of cash does get education moving in a positive direction after a decade of decline. And that is a relief.

"We'll have to keep building on that for it to become really significant, but at least having turned that corner is a nice thing," said Bob Wells, assistant executive director of the statewide Assn. of California School Administrators.

The pot of money most likely to be subject to immediate scrutiny is the one-time allocation that amounts to about $1,500 per classroom.

That money is intended to help school districts take care of annoyances such as paint-peeled walls, leaky ceilings, defunct and outdated computers and a shortage of books that sometimes prevents students from taking them home at night.

School districts must hold public hearings to discuss those issues before spending the money, and if they decide to spend it on other things--such as bonuses for employees--they must hold a second hearing. As a result, school officials do not expect to spend that money until late this year or even early next year.

Competition will be stiff for the rest of the money. Over the past years, districts have been forced into a series of spiraling cutbacks--music and art classes were eliminated, counselors and school psychologists reassigned, sports programs curtailed, class sizes increased and, in many districts, salaries cut by as much as 10%.

Now the dilemma is which of those things, if any, to restore.

"We've gone through a long period of neglect, to put it bluntly," said Supt. Sid Thompson, who heads the 640,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest. "We are very appreciative of any infusion of money, but the point is that the need is so enormous that it literally is but a dent."

The money should help school get off to a smooth start this fall, however, by allowing the district to restore teachers' salary cuts and avoid a threatened strike by the teachers union, Thompson said.

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