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L.A. Unified moves to cut 5,000 teachers and others

April 15, 2009|Howard Blume

Los Angeles school district officials moved forward Tuesday with plans to lay off more than 5,000 teachers, counselors, custodians, clerks and other employees, but the battle over funding will rage on for weeks -- affecting who goes, who stays and what schools and classrooms will look like for students next year.

The Board of Education's 4-3 vote, after more than four hours of pleading and debate, closed most of a $596.1-million deficit for next year in the nation's second-largest school system.

"Anger is appropriate and outrage is appropriate," said school board President Monica Garcia, who voted with the majority. "Nobody wants to do these layoffs."

No one expects every employee with a layoff notice in the Los Angeles Unified School District to be out of work, and most observers believe the current budget plan will evolve, perhaps considerably.

The board action affects about 3,500 newer teachers who have yet to earn tenure protections as well as administrators, nursing staff, library aides, computer programmers and others.

The teachers will lose positions as a result of larger classes, which could rise from 20 to 24 students in the early grades. Sixth-grade classes would rise to 35 students. The average high school class would be larger still.

Much of the contention centers on how much money will be available from the federal stimulus package and how that money could and should be used. Opponents of the cuts have added up federal dollars and come up with figures that surpass the current deficit.

District officials insist that their math is wishful thinking.

But there's also a strategic disagreement. Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has decided to spread the federal money over the next two budget years. Even with the cuts, the district faces an additional deficit in 2010-11. Using most of the federal money now, Cortines said, would create an untenable funding cliff when the dollars ran out.

His top advisors have also yet to factor in some additional funding that they fear could be poached by other government agencies. And some of the money has restrictions that limit the district's flexibility in saving jobs and programs.

Initially, the budget proposal deadlocked on the seven-member board at 3 to 3, with Richard Vladovic suddenly becoming the swing vote. He missed the first roll call, explaining when he returned that recent food poisoning had forced him to leave for several minutes.

He then asked for a legal opinion on whether the district could spend more restricted money to save jobs. The district's top lawyer warned against it, and Vladovic tipped the scale for the Cortines plan.

Vladovic had recused himself from some recent budget votes because his son, a teacher, had received a layoff notice. But that conflict evaporated earlier Tuesday when Cortines recommended rescinding notices of possible layoff that had been sent to nearly 2,000 tenured teachers, including Vladovic's son.

Those still at risk include all teachers without tenure: 1,605 at the elementary level and 1,872 at middle and high schools. The notices also went to 498 other employees with teaching credentials and to 2,875 administrators. Most of those administrators will keep their jobs, but some small campuses will lose a full-time principal.

At one point, a group of Spanish-speaking parents cited security fears and other concerns should their children's campus lack a principal at all times.

Some principals are likely to be replaced by administrators with more seniority.

The "bumping" process, officials acknowledged, could become a nightmare, because more than 1,200 positions will be cut from central and regional offices.

These cuts are not just to save money, but also about decentralizing operations, which is a key Cortines goal and a longtime demand of the teachers union. In the short run, at least, this approach could bump teachers out of their jobs.

Some campuses could be especially hard hit, among them Del Olmo Elementary in Koreatown, where test scores surged in 2008.

At Del Olmo, nearly two-thirds of teachers received notice that they could be laid off. About half of these, however, were spared when permanent teachers got their reprieve.

"I'm glad to hear some teachers' jobs will be saved," Del Olmo second-grade teacher Regina Ramos said, "but it's not enough. . . . What type of reform is it if quality teachers are being let go?"

There was little solace for middle schools and high schools, especially those with less-experienced teachers.

Marla Mattenson, 38, who teaches at Bernstein High in Hollywood, changed careers to become one of the district's new and badly needed math teachers. "But I got a little letter in the mail," she said referring to her layoff notice.

Board member Tamar Galatzan lined up with the budget plan skeptics and financial optimists, as did most of the parents who spoke before the board.

"I don't think the stimulus money should be saved for a rainy day," Galatzan said. "I think we should look outside and see a storm brewing."

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