By Connie Llanos Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group ( This Article First Appeared in the Daily Breeze)
9/9/09 -- Hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles Unified students Wednesday head back to school, where they'll find crowded classrooms, fewer teachers and limited services thanks to a year of tough budget cuts.
And the students won't be the only ones with a homework assignment.
District officials say state lawmakers have given them a vexing math problem to start the year: Subtract about $140 million - the equivalent of closing down seven high schools - from this year's budget.
The hit, which looks certain unless emergency legislation proposed this week passes, comes as the district is still smarting from $869 million in cuts over the past year.
"It just doesn't seem we ever get out of the quicksand," LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said Tuesday. "I feel like I did when I started here in December just one deficit after another."
Teachers, administrators and school workers, who will open the doors to more than 800 campuses for more than 680,000 students, had already prepared to do more with less to survive one of the district's leanest school years ever.
But last week the district learned that a complex funding swap in the state budget deal reached this summer could leave poor school districts like LAUSD high and dry.
To reach the July budget deal, state lawmakers decided that the budgets of school districts with the lowest performing schools would be cut by an amount equal to what they receive in Quality Education Investment Act funding, grants given to California's most under-achieving campuses.
The state grant program was created after the California Teachers Association sued Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over cuts in the 2004-05 budget. The $3 billion in grants is only available to the neediest schools in the state.
At the time of the July budget deal, lawmakers said school districts could get the money back by using federal stimulus dollars to cover the difference. But as many LAUSD officials had feared, the federal money never arrived.
District officials were cautiously optimistic about emergency legislation introduced Tuesday that could prevent the cuts. But without it, they said they could see more layoffs and deeper cuts to programs.
"We are glad that this problem may be fixed," said Megan Reilly, LAUSD's chief financial officer. "However, we won't believe it's fixed until it's really fixed."
Already listed as potential cuts in the coming years are the complete elimination of arts and music programs and full-day kindergarten. Also, student teacher ratios in K-3 classes, which have already grown from 20-to-1 to 24-to-1, could grow to 29-to-1.
More cuts could mean fewer nurses, psychologists, counselors and librarians - who have already been severely cut back.
The loss of custodians and office workers will also mean that classrooms will no longer be cleaned every day and paperwork will take longer to file with fewer officer workers. Still, many say they will simply take on more work to fill in the gaps.
District officials are asking parents and staff to pressure Sacramento to prevent this latest cut from affecting the district.
LAUSD board President Monica Garcia said the rocky times could bring about new and innovative ways of dealing with scarcity.
"During these continued budget cuts we are working hard to preserve instruction and jobs, but parents need to know that regardless of the economic situation they should be demanding quality service and personal attention for their students," Garcia said.
To address budget shortfalls, the district will continue to look at outside partnerships with state, county and local agencies, Garcia said.
For example, she said, the district has recently reached out to the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services to collaborate on mental health programs for students and with local higher education institutions to help with gifted programs and other academic efforts.
"Along with more kids in the classroom and fewer teachers there has to be a culture of great awareness," Garcia said.
"If we are going to face another two years in reduced support from the state it will mean less, but despite that we still have to get to 100 percent graduation. We can't just close up shop."