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L.A. Unified board postpones major cuts

April 1, 2009 |  9:08 am

Unions, parents, members of Congress and a 7-year-old successfully pressured school officials to postpone a vote on budget cuts that could have cost the jobs of thousands of employees and resulted in larger classes, fewer counselors and other diminished services.

The Los Angeles Board of Education and Supt. Ramon C. Cortines delayed for two weeks a decision on $596.1 million in reductions for next year that Cortines previously had described as essential to act on quickly. The board did approve $140.6 million in cuts Tuesday that did not result in job losses.

The postponement happened after officials listened to more than two hours of impassioned pleas while demonstrators carried signs and chanted “save our schools” outside the board room at district headquarters just west of downtown.

The deficit in the district’s nearly $6 billion budget resulted from the ongoing state budget crisis as well as declining enrollment in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Karla Saenz, 26, a cafeteria worker for two years, recounted how her job had allowed her to rent an apartment after she lived with her daughter in cars and shelters. Saenz works at John Liechty Middle School west of downtown L.A. Her daughter attends a district elementary school in Echo Park.

“Now everything could fall apart,” Saenz said. “I have been homeless, and I don’t want to go back there.”
She added: “We don’t make much. The cuts need to start at the top.”

Seven-year-old Markie Marie Metzelar, a second-grader at Topeka Elementary in Northridge, addressed the board in English, Spanish and Korean.

"School rocks, but if you take away our teacher, you will make it very hard for our teachers that remain to teach us as effectively because they will have too many kids in their classrooms,” she said. “Our classrooms will be crowded and squished and lost in the process.”

In the worst-cast scenario, some schools could lose about half their current faculty because of rising class size and because less-experienced teachers could be bumped out by more senior employees who’ve lost their own jobs at central and regional offices.

"They're taking the newest generation of teachers and letting them go,” said Carma Chingere, who is among the teachers who received notice that she could be fired. "We're in the best position to connect with students. We're young. We've been trained in technology. We know what's going on with the students.”

In a statement, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa applauded the delay. In an earlier interview, he said that layoffs should be a last resort and that employee unions need to consider furloughs and pay cuts. And he urged district officials to work harder to ferret out waste and to consider exempting academically struggling schools from staffing cuts. The spared campuses would include the 10 schools where he is overseeing reform efforts.

Toward the end of deliberations, board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte read aloud a letter to Cortines that had been signed by nine members of the local Congressional delegation.

“We are living in a time of tremendous economic uncertainty,” the letter said in part. “If personnel were to lose their jobs now, they would face an extremely difficult job market. ... Respecting the difficult situation you are in, we call upon you to delay any actions that would cause the layoffs of any personnel at this difficult time.”

Earlier in the meeting, Cortines had suggested that he wouldn’t budge. “Given the state of the economy, I do not believe we have other options,” he said. “We must make these decisions.”

He also criticized those who contended that dollars from the federal stimulus package were more than enough to cover the deficit: “The people that are spreading that rumor — it is an insidious lie.”

Facing a reluctant school board, Cortines finally offered more time to explore alternative solutions, which likely would mean unpaid days off or outright pay cuts, he said. Such measures would require concessions from unions representing employees, he added.

Local 99, which represents many lower-salaried non-teaching employees, has already announced that it’s ready to discuss furloughs to save jobs. Leaders of the teachers union, in contrast, have insisted that one-time federal stimulus funds and other local measures could cure the deficit.

The board will take up the matter again on April 14.

-- Howard Blume and Catherine Ho