By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer, Los Angeles Daily News | http://bit.ly/oWYShz
9/06/2011 01:00:00 AM PDT - Awakened by buzzing alarms or nagging parents, thousands of Los Angeles Unified students will pack their backpacks with new notebooks and pencils on Wednesday for the start of the new 2011-12 year.
While youngsters may be nervous about pop quizzes and making new friends, administrators and educators are anxious out the outlook for the nation's second-largest district.
Superintendent John Deasy was intently watching the stock market and monthly jobs reports this summer - and neither has improved his prognosis for the new school year.
"I am very, very concerned about our budget next year," Deasy said. "There is no room in our budget for any cuts."
When the state budget was approved by the Legislature in July, it seemed to bring good news for schools because it promised no further cuts to education. That financial plan, however, relied on $4 billion in increased state revenues that so far have failed to materialize.
If year-end revenue falls short, schools could face cuts of up to $2.5 billion in the spring. State officials have asked districts to delay teacher layoffs and have suggested shortening the school year by up to seven days instead.
LAUSD had previously balanced its budget by cutting four days from the 2011-12 calendar, with employee unions agreeing to take the days as unpaid furloughs. That deal averted some 5,000 layoffs and class size increases.
However, the district's payroll this year has 1,450 fewer educators and about 2,000 fewer office workers, custodians and other support staff.
Back-to-school season is especially depressing for laid-off teachers like Linda Escobar, who lost her job as a music instructor at Cleveland High School after nearly 10 years.
"Normally I'd be ordering sheet music and costumes for the holiday concerts and planning lessons for my music history class," she said. "I'm not doing any of that this year ... It's been harder than I expected it to be."
Escobar is also concerned about the future of programs like art and music, which have been whittled away as the state has reduced funding.
LAUSD campuses are not the only ones feeling the economic pinch this year. A number of local private schools have announced plans to downsize and even close this year because of declining enrollment.
And charter schools say they are also expecting this year to be one of the most financially challenging they've ever had.
"We've never seen such tough financial times," said Jackie Elliott, co-founder and CEO of Partnerships to Uplift Communities.
Elliott said until now, her 13 charter campuses in Northeast Los Angeles and the Northeast San Fernando Valley have avoided cutting teachers or increasing class sizes.
But funding for student field trips, after-school programs and professional development will take a hit this year.
Elliott has been urging her staff to get creative and increase fundraising efforts.
"At each school we are encouraging entrepreneurism," Elliott said. "From selling snacks on campus to having car washes and seeing tapings of TV shows ... We're trying everything."
Many parents at local schools have become fundraising professionals, but Teri Levy, a mother of three LAUSD students and co-founder of the Educate Our State advocacy group, said she's concerned about how much schools will rely on parents for even basic needs this year.
"We used to fundraise to keep arts and physical education programs, but now we're fundraising for librarians, janitorial coverage, nurses ... and that's in addition to the supply lists we get every year," Levy said.
"What else are parents going to be required to fundraise for now, and is that sustainable?"
Levy hopes to get more parents involved in their public schools, but not just by hosting bake sales and attracting campus sponsors.
"We need parents to be active statewide, politically, to really make a difference," Levy said.
Los Angeles Unified officials hope a doom-and-gloom budget forecast won't cloud all the positive changes they anticipate for this year.
"We can't wait until everyone gets back," Deasy said. "We've worked crazy hard to get ready for this school year."
Since taking over as superintendent in April, Deasy has outlined a list of ambitious goals, including higher graduation rates, improved student proficiency and more college-prep courses.
The district is also expected to finalize major policy changes, including new rules on homework assignments and social promotion.
Schools will also inaugurate a reading program and new lunch menu, which replaces now-banned classics like chocolate milk and cheeseburgers with exotic vegetarian fare.
At the end of the day, most educators are just eager to get back in their classrooms for another year.
"With all that's happened, I do think some people are bitter, but the vast majority of teachers have rolled up their sleeves, dug in and worked harder," said Jose Navarro, principal of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, which will open this fall at the new Valley Region High School No. 5 in San Fernando.
"The last few years have revealed how poorly funded California schools are ... but even if the state Legislature lets us down, and local government lets us down, we can't let our kids down," Navarro said.
"If we do ... who else do our kids have?"