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Schools Told to Prepare for Cuts

L.A. Unified: Facing a $133-million deficit, the district orders principals at every campus to suggest reductions.

January 24, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hobart Boulevard Elementary School may have to give up a grant for art education. Fairfax High might have to go without many of the library books it planned to purchase. Children at Fair Avenue Elementary might lose their music classes.

Facing a $133-million deficit, the Los Angeles Unified School District has ordered all principals to offer painful budget cuts in the middle of the school year.

If those plans are approved during a special Board of Education meeting today, many schools will have to put off renovation projects, leave counseling positions unfilled and even ration paper and pencils.

"We're being forced to do something irrational," said Joe Zeronian, the district's chief financial officer. "We're having to break our commitment to the schools because the state's commitment to us has been broken."

Other school districts around the state are contending with similar shortfalls since Gov. Gray Davis announced earlier this month his proposal to cut education funding by $843 million.

In all, Los Angeles Unified may have to relinquish $74 million. But raises for school support staff, workers' compensation claims and special education costs have already ballooned the district's deficit by $59 million. That amount will be taken from individual school budgets.

No cuts in permanent school personnel are expected.

The current cuts are also intended to cushion another expected shortfall next year. Rising employee benefit costs and state demands could put the district as much as $300 million in the red, Zeronian said.

Union officials who are seeking salary negotiations are angry because the district is proposing budget cuts before setting aside any money for pay raises.

"We're making cuts at every level," said school board President Caprice Young. "Inevitably, some of the pain is going to come from school sites since that is where 92% of our money goes."

District superintendents met principals last week to tell them how much they had to slash from their budgets. The cuts would be about $59 per student.

"Everybody opened their folders and looked at the amounts," said Susan Shaffer, principal of Calabash Street Elementary in Woodland Hills.

If the board approves the planned reductions, her school, one of the district's smallest, would have to come up with $17,000 in cuts by Friday.

"I was just asking myself: 'How am I going to do this?' "

Shaffer said she will cut into her school supplies account.

Parents of Calabash students said they will organize a campus walkout if the district approves the budget cuts.

Most principals have attempted to take funds from areas that will not directly affect instruction. But that is a difficult task for many schools that are already strapped.

"I'm spread so thin now it's unbelievable," said Maureen Melvold, principal of Clover Elementary School in West Los Angeles.

She would be giving up money she hopes to use for new computer software and for new library books. She had only hours to decide on the cuts.

Like many principals, Melvold said she understood the district's need to pay its bills, but she said it was frustrating to lose money she had saved so carefully.

"I want to be able to do long-range planning that is meaningful for my kids," she said. "But what's the point of saving for a rainy day when it's just going to get taken away in the middle of the year?"

About 170 schools that managed to finish with a surplus last year could lose most of that saved money. The district would keep a $15-million surplus.

Fair Avenue Elementary School Principal Maxine Matlen has been counting on that money to provide a music teacher for her students. Her North Hollywood campus would have to come up with $109,000 in cuts, and stands to lose an additional $229,000 in surplus funds she saved from last year.

Some principals said they will hesitate in the future to be frugal, and might be more apt to spend their money more quickly.

"Accounts are vulnerable if they're not spent quickly," said Belmont High Principal Ignacio Garcia.

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Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki contributed to this report.

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