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Time to stop cutting at L.A. Unified

Firing library aides and office assistants leaves the school district in free-fall. It's time to tap emergency funds, cut state redevelopment agencies and discuss raising businesses' property taxes.

September 25, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Students browse library shelves during lunch at Hamilton High. Friday was the last day of work for 227 library aides in L.A. Unified.
Students browse library shelves during lunch at Hamilton High. Friday… (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles…)

Monday morning, when the school day begins across Greater Los Angeles, there will be some notable absences:

Two hundred twenty-seven Los Angeles Unified library aides worked their last day Friday, when their positions were eliminated. Roughly an equal number of office assistants, who performed various clerical duties critical to the daily management of schools, also got the ax Friday.

When the school bell rings tomorrow, everyone will pay a price. Principals will be further stressed, trying to make sure phones get answered and information gets disseminated. Teachers won't have the staff support they need. An additional 500 people will be looking for work in a horrible economy. And roughly 300 L.A. Unified libraries will have no one left to staff them.

We're no longer at the edge of the cliff. This is free-fall.

District officials told me some progress had been made Thursday in negotiations with the union representing the laid-off aides, but the next session won't be until Monday. Even if an agreement is reached then, there's no telling how many jobs might be reinstated, but it would take several weeks to process the return of fired employees.

It's possible, I suppose, that this could have been handled in a more last-minute, haphazard way. But I don't know how.

On Friday, the district was forwarding suggestions to principals about how to use teachers and the few remaining aides to keep libraries open, as though they didn't have enough on their plates already with larger classes and less support.

As ham-handed as the district's recent actions have seemed, you can't lay the bulk of the blame for this madness on L.A. Unified. Like other California school districts, it's been rocked by brutal budget cuts. The district has eliminated nearly half its administrative costs, laid off thousands, and is close to the point where it's hard to cut more without dire consequences.

Still, when you do the math on the library aides, it's hard to believe there wasn't a better option than letting 227 of them go. Those aides work three hours a day with no benefits. Their pay is about $10,000 to $12,000 a year, which adds up to roughly $2.5 million annually.

Libraries are sanctuaries. They're safe havens. They're filled with ideas.

Is it worth the diminishment of such a treasured institution for the sake of saving a measly $2.5 million in a budget of $5 billion-plus?

I had trouble getting answers to these questions from top district officials last week. Supt. John Deasy was too busy to talk, and most of the school board members ignored the query I emailed them.

Board member Tamar Galatzan was out of town, but a member of her staff called to discuss the cuts, and board member Steve Zimmer met me for lunch.

Zimmer was clearly frustrated. The goal has been to avoid more teacher layoffs, he noted, which is why custodians, library aides and office assistants have been tossed overboard. But he agreed things were getting out of hand, and he suggested considering something radical.

It's time "to at least have a conversation," he said, about when the district should dip into reserves that currently amount to $65.4 million. A district spokesman told me the state dictates that such reserves be spent when "economic uncertainty entails an unexpected, unavoidable emergency."

I think I'd call it an emergency when you've spent millions on library books that students may not have access to now in a district with a desperate need to improve literacy.

Beyond that, Zimmer suggested, there's a more important conversation Californians need to have. How can we continue to shred schools across the state and not ask why there isn't an excise tax on oil companies whose profits are in the billions? How can Sacramento refuse to talk about a property tax increase on businesses so they begin paying their fair share and catch up to homeowners?

Here's another one:

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to kick $1 billion to schools — including an estimated $100 million or more to L.A. Unified — by eliminating the redevelopment agency trough that keeps developers well-fed. And yet Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who fancies himself a champion of public education, is fighting Brown's move even as hundreds of thousands of students take a beating.

I'd like to end this with a note of thanks to the employees who lost their jobs Friday. I spend a fair amount of time at L.A. Unified schools, so I know how important their work is, and can only hope some of them end up back in their old positions. I know that the parents at Kester Avenue Elementary in Sherman Oaks would like that, too.

They wrote to me recently about the school's wonderful staff, including longtime office assistant Maria "Gabby" Munoz, who knew every child and parent, kept things running despite repeated cutbacks and even pitched in as a volunteer at fundraisers.

"She makes it OUR school, not just some neighborhood school," wrote one parent.

"She isn't just a classified employee, she is part of the Kester family," wrote another.

Munoz will not be at school Monday. Friday was her last day.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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