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Schools are bracing for budget cuts

May 16, 2008|Jason Song and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

Like many school systems throughout the state, Los Angeles Unified School District officials spent Thursday reviewing financial projections that will include cutting programs and services because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's revised budget does not provide enough funding.

Even though the governor included an additional $1.8 billion in state education funding, L.A. Unified administrators decreased earlier projections for cuts but said they still expect a $353-million shortfall because Schwarzenegger's budget fails to include a cost-of-living increase and because the district will have to use unrestricted, general funds to make up for a 10% state cut to programs, including counseling and music and art education.

"What happened [Wednesday] was a short-term Band-Aid that doesn't even cover the wound," said Megan Reilly, L.A. Unified's chief financial officer.

L.A. Unified officials, who had been expecting a nearly $484-million shortfall over the next two years, said Thursday that the district could resort to furloughs, delay class-size reduction plans and textbook purchases and reduce contributions to workers' compensation plans to try to balance their books.

The district, the largest in the state, has not issued preliminary layoff notices to any permanent teachers, but could still lay off up to 6,000 probationary teachers and not replace about 2,000 other instructors to make up for the expected shortfall.

L.A. Unified has trailed other state school districts in making cuts as a political strategy to keep pressure on the governor and the state Legislature, officials said. But that approach already has caused problems at schools where principals are struggling to make classroom assignments and program decisions for next year.

Board members and senior district administrators, who held a lengthy afternoon study session on the budget, said they want to protect classrooms and instruction as much as possible.

"I need to see the pain felt here in this building," board member Yolie Flores Aguilar said at the district headquarters meeting.

Board members have not yet publicly addressed specific reductions but are said to be considering large cuts to such departments as adult and special education, and elementary and secondary instruction, according to a document obtained by The Times.

The April 30 memo outlines nearly $72 million in savings. One of the only programs spared was the Innovation Division, a program championed by Supt. David L. Brewer as a signature new reform effort. According to that document, the department would receive an additional $1.4 million.

Ramon Cortines, the district's new senior deputy superintendent, said he has recommended trims to nearly every department, including the Innovation Division. "I do not think we should be setting up fiefdoms," he said. Additionally, Cortines has said he believes the deep cuts should come from the central office -- not the schools.

Because of the recent payroll fiasco, in which teachers were paid too little, too much or not at all, Cortines recommended that departments working with payroll could be some of the few exceptions from reductions. But, he said, once that situation stabilizes, he wants those departments to reduce expenditures by 30%.

In a memo dated Thursday to Brewer and the board, Cortines said the central office and local districts have exceeded their target of identifying cuts of $44 million, which would put 1,500 jobs at risk. During his review of the budget, Cortines identified another $11.3 million of potential savings, including trimming the Board of Education's budget by 10%.

Brewer and other board members said they would continue to lobby legislators to increase education funding. Brewer said he plans a trip to Sacramento within a week to speak with Schwarzenegger and other lawmakers.

Many other districts continued to try to deal with potential cuts this week even after the latest proposed budget because they are unsure if it will be approved. Legislators have voiced concerns about the budget and could debate it until late summer. But school districts must submit balanced budgets by June 30.

The Westminster school district in Orange County was facing a $3.4-million shortfall and approved $2.5 million in cuts Wednesday night.

"It doesn't seem like the situation has changed significantly enough not to continue doing what we need to do to be fiscally responsible," said Trish Montgomery, a district spokeswoman.

And the Capistrano Unified School District notified 234 teachers Wednesday that they would not have jobs next year, although they could be rehired during the summer if the financial picture changes.

"It's frustrating for me because it's forcing me to make some decisions I didn't want to make," said Justine Lang, a seventh-grade English teacher at Los Flores Middle School who said she is considering leaving the profession. "I'm not ready to leave the classroom."

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jason.song@latimes.com

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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