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District's dance of death

L.A. Unified notifies 11,500 employees that they may be laid off

May 09, 2012|STEVE LOPEZ
  • Los Angeles Schools Superintendent John Deasy speaks during a school district board meeting Feb. 14. A long list of legal requirements ties districts' hands when it comes to firing problematic teachers, and the process often drags on for years.
Los Angeles Schools Superintendent John Deasy speaks during a school district… (Los Angeles Times )

They're doing the dance again -- the soul-sapping, time-wasting annual ritual of figuring out how many of society's most important public servants to push off a cliff.

RIF season, some call it, for Reduction in Force.

This year, Los Angeles Unified is going for the gold. An astounding 9,500 teachers, nurses and human services employees have been notified by mail that their jobs are on the line, as well as 2,000 administrators. Nowhere near that number will be laid off in the end, but the law requires that teachers be notified of the possibility of impending doom long before budgets are set. And so, year after year, we go through this maddening, disruptive and costly process.

On Monday, I sat with seven long-faced teachers on the third floor of a building near downtown L.A. They were there to make the case before an administrative law judge (who charges L.A. Unified by the hour) that although they stand to lose their current jobs, they have enough experience and seniority to require that they be transferred to different posts in the district rather than be laid off.

All but one of these teachers prevailed in the end, but they were missing school for this, and they all looked like they had the pride pounded out of them. Where will they end up next year? It's anyone's guess. And if they're transferred, it means learning a whole new set of students and parents, developing new collaborations with teachers and getting to know a new principal.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 11, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
LAUSD layoffs: A column in the May 9 Section A about potential layoffs in the Los Angeles Unified School District said that a state service tax had been proposed by a reform group called California Forward. In fact, the proposal was made by the Think Long Committee for California.

Alberta Henderson is in her ninth year at 74th Street Elementary School. She told me she loves everything about her school and about teaching third grade, and she doesn't want to leave. But she got RIFed. She's certified to teach high school, and if she wants to keep eating, she'll have to take a transfer and bounce someone else out of work.

"I was never suicidal," said another teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. But she said the annual threat of losing her job and the blow to morale that comes from being so undervalued, "makes you want to end it all."

In the room where she waited was a partial list of those who got RIFed: 95 art teachers, 327 counselors, 66 music teachers, 111 phys ed teachers, 183 psychologists, 133 social studies teachers, 31 nurses, 27 computer science teachers and that's just the beginning.

Last year, my colleague Hector Tobar detailed the particularly ghastly interrogation of teacher-librarians who were called to the stand by district lawyers who wondered whether they really knew anything about teaching. The librarians were being forced to prove whether, if their positions were eliminated, they were competent to return to a classroom.

This year, 50 teacher-librarians got RIFed and several have gone before the kangaroo court to fight for a chance to keep working, in a classroom if not in a library. One of them, Hamilton High librarian Rosemarie Bernier, took the stand Monday after telling me how horrible and demeaning it had been to be grilled about her qualifications a year earlier by district attorneys.

She's been at Hamilton since 1997, sees several hundred students daily, helps them find books and teaches them how to use trusted databases when doing research. She also collaborates with other teachers on lesson plans. The idea that technology makes libraries and librarians obsolete is absurd, said Bernier.

"They don't know how to use technology" to full educational benefit, she argued, and I guess I should remind readers that I'm in full agreement -- and also the father of a college librarian.

On the stand, Bernier -- a national board-certified teacher and past president of the California Library Assn. -- was asked questions by a union attorney in the interest of sparing her harsher treatment from district attorneys.

"Do you give assignments, homework, tests, quizzes and grade all the work they do?"

Bernier kept answering in the affirmative, but suddenly the district lawyers interrupted to say there'd been a development, and Bernier's RIF notice was being rescinded.

A development?

This is how screwball the process is. A librarian is forced to leave school, drive downtown to try to save her job, and when they've got her on the hot seat, the district says never mind. As it turned out, Bernier was No. 52 on a seniority list, and the current plan is to limit layoffs to 50 teacher-librarians.

But that's subject to change, of course, because the only certainty about school budgets is that they're always changing, and by changing, I mean shrinking.

This is not the fault of L.A. Unified, which is at the mercy of the state's revenue roller-coaster and has had to slash its budget like other districts. It's fair to question the district's leadership, spending priorities and emphasis on revenue-sucking charter schools, just as it's fair to ask whether the unions could make more compromises on work rules and benefits.

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