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Unwelcome Lessons in Budget Anxiety

California's teachers worry about layoffs while students fear tuition increases. The worst part, they say, is the uncertainty.

May 06, 2003|Erika Hayasaki, Duke Helfand and Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writers

Ron Vieira moved to Southern California from Canada last July to take a job as a teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica. On March 15, he closed escrow on a home in West Los Angeles.

The same day, he received a notice from his cash-strapped school district: He may not have a job next year.

He is living in the United States on a temporary work visa that expires at the end of the year. If he doesn't have a job, he may be forced back to Canada.

"I have a mortgage," he said. "I have a lot at stake here, emotionally and financially." Fortunately, he said, he tightened the family budget months ago, "when we started hearing grumblings about 'uh oh,' something is going on."

"Uh-oh" is the phrase of choice at homes, schools and universities, as instructors, students and parents grapple with the consequences for education of the $35-billion state budget shortfall. The prospect of billions of dollars in cuts is creating a profound sense of anxiety from kindergartens to graduate schools and triggering professional and personal choices.

An estimated 30,000 elementary and secondary public school teachers in California, including Vieira, were warned in March that they may be laid off next year. Some of the instructors will receive official layoff notices May 15. Parents have rearranged their schedules to raise private money for their children's public schools in hopes of keeping teachers and programs that otherwise might be cut. College students are planning ways to cope with higher tuition and fewer services at state colleges and universities.

In many cases, parents and professors say, it is not the cuts but the uncertainty about how and when the slow-moving state Legislature will make the cuts, that is fraying nerves.

"People can take good news, and people can take bad news, but uncertainty is bad for everybody, " said Dale Cheema, 50, who has three children attending school in Irvine. The school board there voted this month to close two older campuses in a year or two because renovating them would be too expensive.

So far, the personal toll has been highest for teachers like Viera. Uncertain about his future finances, he didn't travel during his recent two-week spring break. He stopped shopping at Banana Republic. He rarely goes out for fun.

He has enough money in savings to pay for a few extra months of his mortgage, but he is worried that he may have to dip into his retirement fund after that. To relieve stress, Vieira exercises regularly and has thrown himself into his work, he said.

"I wish I could tell you I am lighting candles and listening to calm music, but I can't," he said. "The job is very demanding. I give myself to the job. I give 100%, and that is my coping mechanism."

High school seniors and college students facing increased fees at public college campuses are also trying to cope. Community colleges and California State and University of California campuses face fee hikes and more than $1.2 billion in cuts.

El Segundo High School senior Matt Pifer was admitted to UC Santa Cruz. But he has decided to attend El Camino College, a community college in Torrance. His parents -- his father is a county rescue boat captain and his mother a bail agent -- were willing to pay tuition at UC Santa Cruz. But Pifer did not want to make them foot the bill at a time when the budgets may be cut, fees will increase and he is not sure what he wants to study.

"By going to El Camino, I'll be able to save money and get a better idea of what I want to do," Pifer said. He worries that those savings may be less than he thought. At an orientation last week, he learned that the cost per credit at El Camino could more than double this fall, from $11 to $24.

Pifer's classmate at El Segundo High, Martine Yemma, has made a different sacrifice. She canceled a long-planned summer trip to Europe so she can work full time and save money to support herself in the fall at San Francisco State.

So far, California public colleges report increases in applications for the fall and see little evidence that students are staying away because of fee increases.

Elenna Turner, college counselor at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, said that, even with fee hikes, the cost of attending a UC school is a steal. But Turner has taken a budget hit: Her long-distance phone service was cut off as part of new austerities. As part of her job, Turner makes calls to out-of-state colleges on behalf of her students.

"When I came back from winter break it was gone," she said. She got a call from Columbia University in New York City, "and I couldn't call them back. I had to go to the principal's office."

Turner said she made up for the cut by buying a $20 prepaid phone card from Costco, for which she was reimbursed.

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