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Layoffs would hit Villaraigosa's schools especially hard

April 16, 2009|Howard Blume

Principal Tim Sullivan could lose nearly half his teachers at Markham Middle School in Watts even though they want to stay. They've received layoff notices as a result of sweeping budget cuts approved this week by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In fact, under seniority rules, Sullivan couldn't remain either: He'd almost certainly be bumped out by an administrator with more years of service.

The result is that efforts to improve Markham could, in essence, have to start over. Except this time, the school's next principal and many new teachers would have landed in gang-plagued Watts through an involuntary transfer, which doesn't bode well for future progress.

Especially hard hit would be schools under the stewardship of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Seven of the 10 campuses, including Markham, could lose their first-year principals, more than three-fourths of assistant principals and more than 20% of teachers.

"It would be horrendous," Sullivan said. "I need every one of my staff members to return. These children need a continuum of people who care. Losing these teachers would permeate into the belief that no one cares about Watts."

The Board of Education acted Tuesday to close a $596.1-million budget gap by moving forward with plans to lay off about 3,500 teachers who have not yet earned tenure protections. Some are expected to lose jobs because of increasing class sizes. Other teachers and administrators could be displaced by employees with more seniority, including those bumped out of other schools and district offices.

Campuses such as Markham won't necessarily face lower funding; they'll receive substantial federal stimulus dollars aimed at schools serving low-income families. So there's a chance that the number of Markham teachers won't shrink. But these schools won't be able to keep scores of teachers and administrators who want most to be there.

Instability has been commonplace at Markham and myriad other low-performing, long-struggling schools. The mayor's schools confront a particular dilemma because so many started with new administrative teams. These schools have long suffered from high turnover, and some developed reputations as dumping grounds for problem employees.

In 2007, Markham was forced to take an assistant principal whom police suspected of child molestation. Steve Thomas Rooney was arrested months later on molestation-related charges involving two Markham students; he has denied wrongdoing and is awaiting trial.

Last year, the revolving door spun again when a promising school improvement program led by Deputy City Atty. Michelle McGinnis exited just as the mayor's team was entering to take charge. More than 40% of the staff and most administrators departed as well.

The mayor's team scrambled to fully staff the school, with Sullivan arriving in August.

Anecdotal reports from the mayor's schools are mixed this year, but Sullivan insists that real strides have been made at Markham. He points to a committed staff, an expanded college-prep program and a soon-to-launch homework and community-forum website.

Math and science coach Ricardo Esquivel, in his fifth year at Markham, said the school has a newly intense focus on academics. Breaking up the staff, he said, "would take us back a couple of years."

First-year Principal Sherri Williams at 99th Street Elementary in South-Central L.A. said that losing her six new teachers would be like losing a limb "because we are so interwoven and unified."

The mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools has invested at least $2 million of its own funds and about $2 million in district money in staff training at its schools, officials said.

Some schools got a boost when Supt. Ramon C. Cortines decided he could afford to remove permanent elementary teachers from the layoff list.

That spares seven of the 10 endangered teachers at the Partnership's Ritter Elementary in Watts, which has a staff of 20.

Still, year-round Santee Education Complex, south of downtown, would lose nearly all of its math teachers on the academic track that begins July 1. Overall, if the school can't find 55 willing replacement teachers, some classes might begin with substitutes.

For the sake of students, the district must avoid all teacher layoffs, said Marshall Tuck, chief executive of the nonprofit organization that manages the mayor's schools.

There's no potential solution, he added, that solves the problem just for the mayor's schools; that's one reason why Tuck and Villaraigosa are advocating districtwide solutions, including a concerted push for more flexibility with federal money, which could save more jobs.

And instead of letting a displaced senior administrator bump out a good principal, Tuck suggests creating "co-principals" at low-performing schools. They would join rather than replace quality principals until jobs opened elsewhere. Similarly, Tuck wants displaced veteran teachers to add to a staff rather than to force out dynamic, less-experienced colleagues.

But such moves would require additional cost cutting and most likely salary concessions from employee unions, Tuck said.

One way or another, Markham's principal wants to stay put.

"I came to do what I consider missionary work," Sullivan said. "I hope and pray I get an opportunity to return."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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