By Melissa Pamer Staff Writer | Daily Breeze
01/15/2010 08:21:08 PM PST | In the nearly two decades since the California Academy of Mathematics and Science opened its doors, the diverse Carson magnet school has rocketed to the top of academic rankings, drawing national attention.
Last month, the campus placed 22nd on U.S. News & World Report's annual list of the top 100 public schools in the nation. It won 26th place in 2008 and 21st place in 2007, the first year of the list.
With a score of 975 on the state's test-based Academic Performance Index, the Long Beach Unified-operated campus is the third-highest ranked public secondary school in California.
Some 900 students from about 70 regional middle schools, many in low-income areas, compete for 167 freshman spots at the school, known as CAMS.
Alumni say they are proud of the rigorous college-preparatory program at the school, which is located in a collection of buildings on the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills. But the welcoming and supportive sense of community is what they cherish.
Now, they say, the nurturing environment at the 600-student school may be under threat.
That's because three beloved teachers - considered by many to be the heart of the school - have been told this will be their last year at the institution.
"It's hard to think about. All of us are expecting it to fall apart without them," said junior Kasey Angsioco of Carson.
The three teachers - economics instructor Greg Fisher, history teacher Michael Denman, and math teacher Vanessa Cerrahoglu - have been on loan to CAMS from Los Angeles Unified School District for years. In 2009, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines ordered an end to all extended leaves of absence that allow such arrangements.
As with many decisions made in the financially troubled district these days, the motivation was budgetary.
"It's a small issue that's symbolic of the larger need to save money. If we're really looking everywhere, this is one of the places we need to look," said district spokeswoman Lydia Ramos.
Though LAUSD is reimbursed for the salaries and benefits of employees on leave, it remains on the hook for health benefits after their retirement - at $14,330 annually per retiree, district officials said.
The district can no longer afford to cover that cost for teachers who don't work in LAUSD schools, said Jim Morris, the district's chief operating officer.
"Some of them had been given extension after extension after extension for multiple years. There is a cost to that," Morris said. "We canceled all of them. We have made no exceptions."
Nearly a fifth of the district's $5.5 billion operating budget goes to health benefits, district officials said.
About $382 million each year goes just to retiree benefits, which cover family members and last until death. Last year the subject of heated union negotiations, those costs are expected to rise as more employees retire and live longer.
The district's cost-saving reasoning has not sat well with CAMS students and alumni, who learned about the teachers' predicament in December.
A Facebook group - called "Save CAMS!" - founded earlier this month has garnered more than 1,240 members.
Alumni are also planning to attend a Jan. 26 LAUSD board meeting to advocate for the teachers.
"When you ask any CAMS student about high school, minimally two of those teachers come to mind," said Andrea Mortley, a 2003 graduate who created the Facebook group. "Our school only has 18 full-time teachers. To lose three at once would be pretty devastating."
Others said that the three teachers are particularly important. Yearbook and student government, two of the core campus activities, are overseen by Fisher and Denman, respectively.
"These teachers are part of the fabric that is CAMS. They encapsulate what it is to be a teacher who's really involved," said Carolina Mejia, who graduated from CAMS in 2001 and now lives in Washington, D.C.
Mejia said many alumni have become involved in the campaign because the teachers' potential removal feels like a threat to an institution that was formative for them.
"I think that's why so many students are riled up. (CAMS) really has affected all of us. It was a really great experience," Mejia said.
Mejia, Mortley and others have bombarded LAUSD officials and the media with letters and e-mails.
Morris has responded to many.
"Every one of the letters that we received has been a wonderful tribute to the individual teachers. We will welcome these folks back with open arms," Morris said.
For the teachers, it's not an enticing prospect.
Fisher, who commutes 45 miles from Laguna Niguel, said he and the other two teachers are committed to projects and programs at CAMS.
"This basically feels like we're at the seventh or eighth inning and someone's changed the rules of the game," he said.
A former Westchester High teacher who's been at CAMS for 13 years, Fisher's project-based instruction methods were the subject of a 2008 profile in USA Today, which had named him one of 20 All-USA Teachers.
He said he's tried privately to reason with LAUSD, repeatedly pointing out that more than a quarter of CAMS students come from Los Angeles Unified schools.
It's been fruitless, he said.
(In addition to Long Beach Unified and LAUSD, the following school districts also send students to CAMS: Torrance, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lennox, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Wiseburn, Compton, Inglewood and Lynwood.)
Fisher finds the student effort on his behalf flattering, though he and the other teachers have purposefully remained independent of the campaign.
He's becoming resigned to the fact that he'll have to go back to LAUSD.
District officials said they've tried to provide enough time to work with the teachers to find an appropriate placement. They must return to LAUSD on July 1.
Last week, Fisher and Denman toured LAUSD campuses in the Harbor Area. It was an exercise that Fisher called "depressing."
Denman, who lives in Redondo Beach, said for years he simply filled out a form each spring requesting an extension of his leave.
When he learned in the fall that another extension would not be offered, he thought it was a mistake.
"It didn't make any sense to me," said Denman, who's been at CAMS for 12 years. "I'm even amazed when they even realize we're still here."
Math teacher Cerrahoglu did not respond to a request for comment.
CAMS Principal Janice Filer said she did not want to speak about the matter, calling it an LAUSD issue outside her control.
Meanwhile, Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou said the district would likely not be in a position to hire the three CAMS teachers, even if they were willing to abandon LAUSD's comparatively plush health benefits.
"What's more likely to occur here is we simply won't replace those positions. That way we won't have to lay off teachers elsewhere," Eftychiou said.
The district needs to cut $90 million from its $715 million budget over the next two years, and a "significant number" of layoff notices are expected in coming weeks, he said.
"I'm sure that these teachers are outstanding and we're sorry that we're losing them," Eftychiou said. "It's really a Los Angeles decision."