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O.C. Teachers in Pink-Slip Shock

The state's budget deficit dramatically increases the number of layoff warnings local districts hand out.

March 14, 2003|Claire Luna and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

In Laguna Beach, the tally so far includes every school administrator, one of the district's two assistant superintendents and a third of its 127 teachers.

Like tens of thousands of teachers and school administrators across Orange County and the rest of California, the Laguna Beach educators were notified this week that they may be laid off this fall in an unprecedented response to the state budget deficit. State law requires California school districts, which are bracing for more than $5 billion in cuts, to notify certificated employees by Saturday of the possibility they may be laid off. As many as 30,000 teachers and administrators, the most in recent memory, are receiving the so-called March 15 notices this year, according to estimates by education officials and organizations.

The actual number of layoffs is expected to be much smaller as the state adopts a budget and school districts get a clearer picture of their finances. But a state budget may not be in place until summer, or even after school starts in the fall, leaving teachers in limbo for months. Districts can implement actual staff cutbacks as late as August.

Although teachers know the pink slips may be rescinded, many were in shock.

Laguna Beach High School computer graphics teacher Kerry Pellow's stomach "was in knots" Wednesday morning as she waited to hear whether she would get a termination notice. She finally got a pink slip from Principal Nancy Blade -- who received her own pink slip earlier in the day.

"I had hoped I would be one that would get lucky, that maybe I'd been there long enough," said Pellow, 32, who has been teaching for eight years.

As many as 1,000 of Orange County's roughly 25,000 public school employees may receive pink slips this week, said Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified Supt. Dennis M. Smith, president of the county's superintendents' group.

Capistrano and Saddleback Valley unified districts, which each have about 1,800 teachers, issued a total of nearly 500 preliminary layoff notices. But Laguna Beach is preparing to lose the greatest percentage of teachers among county school districts.

"There's a sense of lunacy in these numbers," said Laguna Beach Trustee Jan Vickers. "How could anybody expect us to educate our students under these conditions? Nobody in their right mind would make these cuts unless they had to."

Some union leaders accused school districts of using the notices as a ploy to force concessions at the bargaining table. But leading experts said the notices reflect the dire financial situation facing California schools.

"School districts don't issue layoff notices for effect or to convince legislators to do something to their advantage," said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a consulting firm that works with most of the state's 1,000 districts.

Capistrano Unified spokesman David Smollar bristled at the notion that districts are inflating their numbers to make parents and legislators panic.

"This is not some sort of game educators are playing all over the state," he said. "Given the magnitude of the budget crisis, anything you do to deal with it inevitably sends a message."

In some of the worst-hit districts, teachers have flocked to board meetings to show their support for hard-pressed administrators. At Laguna Beach's meeting Tuesday night, dozens of teachers and district officials cried as high school government teacher Dawn Mirone mentioned a bright side of the crisis.

"We understand that your hands are tied," she said. "By taking this outstanding district and devastating it, they're also bringing us closer together."

That kind of encouragement is essential, Smith said.

"The responsibility and the blame has to lie with the state," he said. "They're the ones who have been dragging their feet on dealing with budget issues."

Laguna Beach parent Ketta Brown condemned legislators for "holding children hostage" because they were unable to manage money. At Top of the World Elementary, where she is PTA president, the layoffs would decimate the math and science departments, she said.

"This district will become a ghost town," she said. "They'll have these beautiful schools with no one running them and no teachers teaching in them. It's mind-boggling."

On the other end of the spectrum are districts such as Brea-Olinda, Centralia, Irvine, Ocean View and Garden Grove, which have no layoffs planned. They attributed this to years of severe cutbacks and leaving retiring teachers' positions vacant.

"We've cut our teachers kind of ahead of other districts," said Irvine Teachers Assn. President Anne Caenn. "It looks like we're not doing any cuts, but really, our pain has just been more prolonged." The district did issue notices to 35 temporary teachers, who are not credentialed.

Administrators noted, however, that teachers with emergency permits -- which allow people to teach while they're in the process of earning their credentials -- could be told as late as August that they will be fired.

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