Monday, March 03, 2008

SCHOOLS OPERATE IN CRISIS MODE: Districts across the state are laying off workers as they await $4.8-billion reduction proposed by governor.

In Rialto, 305 staffers will be cut.

by Jason Song | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

March 3, 2008 - Rialto Unified teacher Joscelin Thomas knew that her school district was the first in the state to send employees notices that their jobs were in danger. She knew she was particularly vulnerable as a new employee. She hoped she wouldn't get one.

"I have a lot of faith. Maybe it won't happen," she said with a smile.
Then the vice principal asked her if she had received any certified mail recently.
Yes, Thomas said, but the mother of six hadn't had time to go the post office to pick it up.

"Um, that's it," the vice principal said gently as Thomas slumped in her chair.
Thomas' situation is an apt example of the predicament of public school teachers around the state. After crossing their fingers that they could avoid layoffs, teachers from Santa Ana to Kern County learned last week that they may not have jobs as their districts struggle to balance their books in anticipation of a $4.8-billion education cutback proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The California Teachers Assn. estimates that 5,000 notices of possible layoffs have been issued statewide and predicts more by March 15, the date by which districts must first notify teachers that their jobs are in danger. Final notifications should arrive by early summer.

The situation is particularly difficult in Rialto, where the school board voted to send notices to 305 employees. Officials project a nearly $23-million shortfall next year in the district's $220-million budget because of the governor's proposed spending plan and declining enrollment, which has been exacerbated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The district is already one of the 40 smallest in California.

Rialto, which has a largely Latino student body, had nearly 31,000 students two years ago but lost about 1,200 -- mostly because families moved amid high housing costs, Supt. Edna E. Davis-Harring said. Rialto officials were so concerned about the drop that they began mapping foreclosures and discovered more than 400 in their area.

"If you don't have the funding, you just don't have it. And we truly don't have it," Davis-Harring said.

Second-year teacher Jorge Alvarez tried not to let his concern show during a recent world history class at Wilmer Amina Carter High School. It's hard enough to control 24 sophomores at 7:30 a.m. without worrying about losing your house.

"I know this is first period, but wake up. We're in school now," he told his students, a few of whom were stifling yawns.

After breaking the class into groups, Alvarez handed out an assignment and promised 50 extra credit points to the first group to finish correctly, which set off a quick burst of activity.

Alvarez walked through the class fielding questions. When asked if Joseph Stalin killed himself, Alvarez quickly said no. He paused before offering a few words of encouragement. "I like your thinking. That was a tough question, even for me," he said.

Alvarez never thought he would end up back in high school after he graduated Rialto High School in 2001. He wanted to be an architect, but while attending Cal State San Bernardino, he began tutoring for extra cash and discovered that he loved the job. "I was teaching my friends' little brothers and sisters. I really liked giving back to my community," he said.

He started teaching full time for the district last year and bought a house for nearly $400,000 in August because he thought his job was secure. "I heard you can never go wrong with real estate," he said.

Not only is Alvarez now checking his mailbox every day, looking for certified mail, but he also is concerned that he won't be able to find another teaching job if he is laid off.
"I really like it, but every district's going through the same thing, so it's not like a lot of places will be hiring," he said.

In one classroom down the hall, 15-year veteran Susie Whitesell said that she wasn't afraid of losing her job but that "the teachers lounge isn't a good place to visit now. A lot of people are scared," she said.

As the clock ticked down in Alvarez's class, the groups raced to finish the assignment. One student asked another what the Italians did during World War II.

"They got beat up by everyone, just like you on the football field. C'mon man, hurry," said Manuel Madriz in an impassioned though dubious assessment. Despite Manuel's encouragement, his group handed in their work a few seconds behind another. "I needed those points," one muttered.

Alvarez looked over both answers. Like a man who was trying to stockpile his good karma, he gave both teams the extra credit. "Your group had to walk a little further," he told Manuel. "So you tied."

Even students know there's something amiss, Alyssa Silva said. The Carter High junior is one of 26 students in her pre-calculus class and is concerned that if teachers get laid off, class size will grow and students won't get the same quality of education. The 305 employees who received potential layoff notices are about one-fourth of the district's total staff.

"I've been in classes that have a lot of kids, and it's hard to understand anything," she said.

Rialto Unified has made some recent academic gains, and its superintendent worries that deep cuts could stall progress. The district scored a 661 on California's latest Academic Performance Index, below the state's target of 800; the API measures schools and districts on student scores in math, English and other subjects.

Thomas is in an even more vulnerable situation than Alvarez because this is her first year of teaching. The 36-year-old was a stay-at-home mother for much of her life but comes from a family of teachers and had always wanted to stand in front of a classroom. When she finished her undergraduate degree last year, she applied to 10 districts before she was hired by Rialto High.

If she does lose her job at Rialto, Thomas said, she could stay home with her children, ages 4 to 17. "Maybe that's what I'm supposed to do in this situation," she said.

But she admits that now that she's back to teaching, she'd like to continue. "I heard the Department of Corrections is always hiring teachers," she said.

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