Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sandy Banks: IN L.A. SCHOOLS, DEATH BY 1,000 CUTS

 The district, like the city, will have to close its budget hole. But in the schools, the costs will be paid by children.

columnist Sandy Banks From the Los Angeles Times

April 22, 2008 — For all the hand-wringing over the city's impending budget cuts, you have to think that Los Angeles Unified Supt. David Brewer wouldn't mind being in the mayor's shoes right now.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans to close Los Angeles' $406-million budget gap by cutting jobs and charging residents more to park, play golf and get their trash picked up.

The school system doesn't have those options; there are no fees to hike or ways to drop the most expensive students from the budget. The district has to rely on program cuts to make up for a $460-million shortfall projected in the fall.

It's the same sort of dilemma many families are facing in this era of shrinking paychecks, rising gas prices and mounting home foreclosures.
We stop eating out, and scrap summer vacation plans and home improvement projects. We put the Macy's card away and wait for the JCPenney sale. We do without.

Stretching education dollars is not that simple.

Employees will certainly be let go; they account for 80% of the district's budget. Next year there will be fewer people to fix classroom computers, counsel college-bound students, track down truants and serve school lunches.

Then program cuts will take their toll, as magnet school budgets shrink, science labs are shuttered and more students are stuffed into overcrowded classes.

It's hard to fathom a cut of almost half a billion dollars -- a number so large it obscures, rather than illuminates, the losses. But students and parents who have been through it know. And their numbers are legion, and growing.

When my oldest started kindergarten at our neighborhood school, the district was flush. A wish list of simple items was posted on her classroom door: A rug for story-time. Easels, paints, little plastic aprons. Parents fished in their pockets for a few dollars.

But a year later, the bottom fell out. More than $220 million had to be cut from the district's budget.

By the end of first grade, teachers' aides were gone; my daughter was spending class time tutoring other children. The custodian's hours were cut back. The restroom was dirty, always out of toilet paper; my daughter was afraid to use it.

In second grade, there were 32 children in her class. They shared tattered books and colored with broken nubs. The school lost its librarian, and music and physical education instructors. The remaining teachers were forced to take salary cuts.

There wasn't a next year for her.

I transferred her in third grade to a private school. I hated to leave. Her teachers were great and the campus was two blocks from our home. But I gave up; my daughter would get only one go-round with her education, and I refused to gamble that the school would improve.

During her three years as a Los Angeles Unified student, the district had cut $1 billion.

Julie Korenstein is the only Los Angeles Unified school board member who has been around long enough to remember that crisis in the early 1990s.

"It was a horrible, horrible time," she recalled, when I called her Monday about the cuts the board is to begin considering next month.

"This," she said, "will be worse than that."

In some districts, there's a financial cushion that can blunt some of the cuts. In districts such as Irvine, a foundation that supports public schools raises $3 million annually and auctions off a house, Times reporter Seema Mehta reported Sunday. Some schools have well-heeled parents or corporate angels who donate enough to make up some of the losses.

But in Los Angeles, more schools are like little Sierra Vista Elementary on the Eastside.

It relies for its extra funds on the few hundred dollars earned from the sale of homemade Christmas ornaments. Those schools just have to wait out the cuts, and hope students don't fall too far behind before the state's economy picks up.

Because of the cut-and-recover cycle in the LAUSD, students' fate depends not just on where they live and what school they attend, but where they happen to land on the school funding bubble.

Ten years after we left, my family returned to L.A. Unified.

I enrolled my second child in one of the best middle schools. It boasted small classes, high test scores and a broad array of after-school courses.
But in 2002, the state hit an economic bump and the district was forced to chop $440 million from its $5.2-billion budget.

My daughter wound up in an algebra class with more than 40 students, where teaching took a back seat to keeping order.

Two years later, the school improved -- teachers were hired, classes sizes reduced, after-school tutoring restored.

But by then my daughter was in high school, limping in confusion through her math classes. For her and thousands of others, there was no getting back that lost year.

The district, like the city, will have to close its budget hole. But in the schools, the costs will be paid by children.

Los Angeles Times: In L.A. schools, death by 1,000 cuts

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