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A golden apple and a pink slip

Alhambra High's employee of the year, a popular library worker, finds himself unemployed.

June 23, 2010|Steve Lopez

Last Wednesday, Alhambra High School library technician Terry Cannon rose to a standing ovation from his peers as he was named the school's employee of the year.

Two days later, the employee of the year got laid off.

And so it goes in California, home of the never-ending school budget cuts.

Happy summer to all.

Cannon's work was outstanding, said Alhambra Valley Unified Supt. Donna Perez, who called budget-driven layoffs "heart wrenching." He taught kids research skills, introduced them to great literature, catalogued books — anything that was needed.

Cannon was given the ax along with 17 other library technicians, health assistants and custodians — layoffs that were almost certain to be made official at Tuesday night's Alhambra Unified board meeting. In addition, 17 bus drivers have been told they'll lose a month's pay.

Perez said she has whacked a total of $45 million out of her budget over the last three years and could lose 80 teachers next year, when it looks like she'll have to squeeze out an additional $9 million.

"I've come to terms with the loss of the job," Cannon told me Tuesday afternoon in his living room, saying he was primarily upset about the way it was handled. He was fired on the last day of school after the students had left, so he didn't get to tell them he wouldn't be there in the fall when they return.

"I guess they're afraid you'll go postal, or steal library books, or, God forbid, lower morale," said Cannon, 56. "Although, I've never seen morale as low as it is."

As we spoke, Cannon went to a living room cabinet and brought out his award — a shiny golden apple. He told me that in preparation for Tuesday's board meeting, he'd spent the morning at his computer, next to a Tommy Lasorda bobble head, writing the speech he intended to read to the board that night.

"My name is Terry Cannon, and you don't know me," begins the speech. "But within the hour you will rubber stamp the superintendent's recommendation to eliminate my position as library technical assistant at Alhambra High."

He intended to ruffle some feathers and accuse the board members of being all about numbers rather than people, with no personal knowledge of what those people do.

"I'm going to share an inscription written in my 2010 yearbook by a student," he said.

"Hi, Mr. Cannon," it read. "You are one of the nicest people I've met at AHS. I love how I could always just walk into the library and talk to you about anything. You are so dedicated to your work and you obviously love working with students."

It doesn't matter, Christine. He's gone (unless, after my deadline, the official termination was delayed by the board).

Alhambra High is a big school, with 3,000 students and a library collection Cannon pegged at about 50,000 books. Running that library will be a one-person job after Cannon's departure, and that won't be easy, admitted Supt. Perez.

Cannon said he decided to work in public service because he was inspired by his wife, an Alhambra High teacher. Five years ago, when he quit work as an editor in the publishing industry and applied for the library tech job, his interviewer asked him how he thought he'd like working with high school students.

"I have no idea," he answered back then.

But, he told me, he ultimately found the answer.

"I loved the kids. It hadn't been a cool thing for them to go to the library, so I wanted to make it a fun place where they could go to study or just hang out."

He put together cultural displays, exhibited the work of artist friends and tried to motivate students to shoot for college.

"I think 50% of our kids qualify for school lunches," said Cannon, who believes the advantage gaps grow wider with each round of cuts. "In college, they'll need to do high-level academic research — not Internet searches, but reference-based research in scholarly journals — and they're not going to know how to do that.

"And that's our future. If we don't build a decent education for them, how do we get out of the morass we're in? We'll have huge unemployment and welfare and end up paying in a much greater way."

Well said. Not many days go by without me hearing from desperate and angry parents, teachers and administrators struggling with cuts.

We all know the state's got a huge budget deficit and some hard choices to make because nobody wants cuts to their pet programs and nobody wants to pay higher taxes. What frosts me is that in the midst of a crisis and in the heat of a campaign for governor, conventional wisdom says a candidate can't risk telling us how they'd get us out of this mess and what the state's priorities should be.

It's the only thing I want to hear them talk about. I don't care if Meg Whitman shoved a former colleague at EBay or Jerry Brown had a mixed record as governor 30 years ago.

I want to know what they want to do, how they intend to do it, and whether they think Alhambra High School's employee of the year ought to be on the job in the library, or queuing up in the unemployment line with his resume and shiny golden apple.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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