The size of classrooms and the educators who run them are in jeopardy of expanding and decreasing, respectively, according to officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Nearly 2,300 teachers could be laid off by mid-year, say school district representatives as they scramble to alleviate a $250 million deficit in the district’s nearly $6-billion budget.

The L.A. Unified Board of Education voted 4-2 on January 13th to implement the layoff plan if there are no other options forreducing the budget gap.

“We are now anticipating layoffs,” L.A. Unified superintendent Ramon Cortines confirmed in a letter to district employees last week. “We hope to do these unavoidable reductions in force with as little interruption as possible.”

The United Teachers Union of Los Angeles, the school district’s largest representative union for educators, is in opposition to any cutbacks of teachers.

“We will fight this tooth and nail,” union president A.J. Duffy vowed in an interview the day after the teacher reduction plan was announced.

New teachers are the instructors that are at immediate risk, but tenured teachers could find themselves in jeopardy within the next few years if the deficit grows and more cuts are deemed necessary.

“[New teachers] are the teachers of the future,” Duffy said. “Once you lose them, you never get them back.”

Approximately 1,700 elementary school teachers and 600 mathematics and science instructors could receive layoff notices by March, and hundreds of non-teaching employees are likely to lose their positions regardless of what transpires in March.

An increase in class size is almost inevitable, says Grace Godlin, a Venice resident and a retired teacher.

“If LAUSD eliminates the number of teaching positions that has been reported, there is almost no way that classroom size will not increase,” Godlin asserted.

Duffy agrees.

“I don’t see how that can not happen under these draconian cuts,” he said.

Since last summer, district officials have slashed over 650 jobs, saving almost $65 million, as they attempted to reduce a growing fiscal shortage in the district that could be as much as $250 million.

“As a parent and someone who cares about the student-teacher ratio in the classroom, this is an absolutely horrible situation that we’re facing,” said Bill Ring, an organizer of Local District 3 Parent Advisory Council.

Duffy said he was not certain that the reported number of 2,300 would be the final figure, but he said the union would not tolerate any significant reduction in the staffing levels of teachers.

“The number moves each time that we talk to [the district],” he said.

Ring feels that the state government has played a role in the economic crisis facing the district.

“The state has not taken public education seriously,” said Ring, who traveled to Sacramento with other parents last spring to lobby state legislators about their local schools. “The answer is not to cut teachers, it’s to focus on what are our students’ needs in the classroom.”

Westchester schools are in the initial stages of exploring a reform effort that will bring them autonomy within L.A. Unified, and that could be jeopardized long-term because of the education deficit. The confluence of a ballooning economic shortfall and how much funding the school district will appropriate to the Westchester schools that have voted to break away is not lost on Terry Marcellus, who chairs the education committee on the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/ Playa del Rey.

“I definitely have the view that this is the perfect storm,” said Marcellus. “At this time, LAUSD is working on how much money the Family of Schools [a group of Westchester school opting for autonomy within L.A. Unified] will get, and I think that it’s essential that we get control over our budgets.

“Otherwise, [autonomy] could turn out to be a wasted effort.”

Among some local teachers, the news of layoffs brings a feeling of uncertainty and a level of anxiety.

Fred Page, who teaches math at Westchester High School, echoed that sentiment after schools returned from vacation on January 12th.

“I’m not sure what the future holds,” Page said.

Godlin said that the district should look toward other areas to save money rather than focus almost solely on teachers.

“There has always been a lot of waste and a lack of accountability in LAUSD,” said the former teacher. “There has always been a lack of focus on the individual classroom.”

In an interview last fall with The Argonaut, Duffy said the union would consider a number of actions if the district proceeded with its plans to eliminate teaching positions, including a work stoppage. After Cortines’s announcement, a strike is a definite possibility, he said. “Even more so now,” Duffy stated.

“It’s a pretty frightening time for teachers,” Godlin added.

The teachers union engaged in a number of protest actions last year when L.A. Unified authorities announced that teacher furlough days would be eliminated in September as a way to reduce the anticipated budget shortfall. Parents at various Westside schools joined their children’s educators in June to protest the elimination of teachers and classified staff member positions.

Duffy says that these actions would continue, in light of the plans to lay off thousands of teachers.

Cortines says that he will also consider borrowing from the district’s reserve fund and possibly offer early retirement to some employees.

In a related matter, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested on January 7th cutting back the number of days that students attend school in an effort to save money.

Duffy dismissed the governor’s proposal.

“That’s cutting at the wrong place,” he said. “On the contrary, I agree with President-elect [Barack] Obama — we probably need to have more school days.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said Schwarzenegger’s proposal would be devastating to schools.

“It would particularly hurt our low-income students and students of color,” he said.

L.A. Unified officials say that Cortines is not considering Schwarzenegger’s proposal.

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