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Educators Get Layoff Warnings

School officials in Ventura County act in response to expected state budget cuts. But some say districts have money on hand.

March 14, 2003|Jenifer Ragland and Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writers

Hundreds of Ventura County teachers and principals have received layoff warnings in recent weeks, as school district officials brace for what they anticipate will be deep cuts in state funding to education next year.

Saturday is the state-imposed deadline for giving teachers notice about potential job losses. Absent a clear budget picture from the state Legislature, many district leaders said they had no choice but to issue the layoff warnings.

"The district is just looking to have some flexibility at this point," said Mike Bush, business chief in the Santa Paula Elementary School District, which has notified 40 teachers that they may lose their jobs after the school year ends in June. "Unfortunately, the personnel laws do not follow the same calendar as the state budget."

But many teachers and union leaders argue that looming budget gaps could be met by dipping into the hefty savings accounts all districts are required by the state to keep -- something school district officials say they refuse to do.

That conflict was evident in Fillmore on Tuesday, when dozens of teachers gathered at the town's middle school for an emergency meeting aimed at drawing attention to the issue.

"That's what the reserves are for -- economic uncertainty," said Ron Plomell, union president in the Fillmore Unified School District, where 60 educators found out this week that they are in danger of being laid off. "This is an emergency. We're facing job reductions and increases in class sizes, which is diluting the educational experience for kids."

Hardest hit in Fillmore and countywide are the newest teachers, many of whom are young and bring a lot of energy and fresh ideas to the classroom, Plomell said.

"Some of them have already started looking for jobs elsewhere," he said.

Fillmore Supt. Mario Contini said officials are working on a proposal that they hope will close next year's projected $1.1-million budget gap with only a few layoffs. That proposal includes increasing class sizes in grades 6 through 12, controlling health benefits for teachers and shortening the work year by one day for all district employees.

But all those measures require cooperation from the union, Contini said, and the district had to send layoff warnings to teachers as a backup plan.

"We feel we have to do this, in case everything falls flat," Contini said.

Contini also said the district will not rely on its reserve fund, which he said should only be used for "catastrophic situations." He cited an example from earlier in this school year when several school buildings were infested with termites.

"When you start dipping into reserves, it can put us in a dangerous spot," Contini said. "We don't look at it as a way to cover a downturn in the economy, when we have time to plan around that downturn." School administrators throughout the county agreed.

"In times as tough as these, it is all the more reason to have adequate reserves," said Stan Mantooth, business services chief in the Ventura County superintendent of schools office. "The problem with the budget proposals and this uncertain future is that there may be no mechanism to build these funds back up. If the districts spend them, they could very well go bankrupt."

While most district officials acknowledged that the budget crisis will cause some job losses, they didn't believe the staff cuts will be as drastic as the numbers of layoff warnings might indicate. "It's my sincere hope that it won't come to that," said Bush of the Santa Paula district, where 20 classified staff members have already lost their jobs. "We have many talented individuals we want to keep a part of our staff."

Meanwhile, anxious teachers will have to wait.

"It creates a lot of unrest and bad feelings toward the district," said Wayne Bauer, 44, a third-grade teacher in Fillmore who received a layoff warning. "With all the hard work and effort teachers put in, this is the thanks we get? It makes you feel like your efforts are going unnoticed."

At the Hueneme Elementary School District in Port Hueneme, anxiety over looming budget cuts is palpable, said Jeff Baarstad, assistant superintendent for business services.

Hueneme administrators recommended Wednesday night that school board members give layoff warnings by Saturday to 30 teachers who work for the district on an annual basis, he said. But administrators also will recommend that board members establish an incentive retirement program that would target 20 teachers, he said.

If the program were to reach its goal, Baarstad said, it is likely that none of the 30 temporary teachers would lose their jobs next year. A total of 450 teachers work in the district. "Teachers are the heart and soul of what we do," Baarstad said Tuesday. "We don't want to start laying off teachers right and left. That's just not an option."

In Simi Valley, the county's largest school district, officials said they will avoid laying off any permanent teachers, mostly through attrition. The board Tuesday night approved a long list of potential belt-tightening measures, including cutting clerical jobs, reducing bus service and eliminating a science program for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.

But some measures, such as relaxing strict rules for class sizes in grades K-3, will take cooperation from teachers and the Legislature. Uncertainty about funding levels is a major frustration, said board member Greg Stratton.

"It's bleak, and it's even bleaker because they can't tell you how bleak it is," he said. "It's freaky."

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