Despite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement that he would not be seeking nearly $500 million in funding reductions to school districts throughout California, officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are wary that the cutbacks that he and the State Legislature are planning may be almost as drastic.

“The (reductions in the district’s budget) are going to impact us dramatically,” school board member Marlene Canter, who represents Westchester and Venice schools, told The Argonaut.

Despite the fact that Schwarzenegger included an additional $1.8 billion in state education funding, many believe that school districts will face an approximately $350 million deficit due to the budget’s failure to provide a cost-of-living increase.

L.A. Unified officials feel that they might be forced to use money from the district’s general fund to offset a ten percent cut to targeted programs.

“I am very, very concerned about the budget that is being proposed by the governor,” said State Senator Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach, whose district includes schools in Westchester.

She noted that Schwarzenegger’s plan to borrow money against future state lottery earnings was “very tricky and not a very thoughtful approach” to solving the budget crisis.

“The governor really didn’t do education any favors with this budget,” said the senator.

The state deficit has escalated to approximately $20 billion, and a long and protracted struggle over which programs can be retained and which can be slashed is anticipated to last throughout the summer.

Representatives from Schwarzenegger’s office say that he has produced a budget that fully funds education under Proposition 98 — increasing funding to K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) education over the current year budget by almost $200 million.

“As everyone knows, we are facing an extremely difficult budget year,” Schwarzenegger said. “With the subprime mortgage crisis, fewer capital gains and the stalled national economy, our revenues have flattened out.”

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, referred to Schwarzenegger’s proposals as “smoke and mirrors” and mentioned the possibility that certain teachers’ positions might be victims of the deficit axe.

“Clearly, there may be probationary teachers that might be let go,” Duffy acknowledged.

The Los Angeles school district is considering cutbacks at the central office that would exceed $45 million. One of the programs that will likely be spared is the Innovation Division. Known as the iDivision, the entity, championed by L.A. Unified superintendent David Brewer, was created to model a new method of school governance.

“Schools get more autonomy from LAUSD in exchange for increased accountability,” according to a district press release.

Each iDivision school must have a network partner, a civic institution that agrees to work with a family of schools.

Megan Reilly, chief financial officer for L.A. Unified, pointed out that the cutbacks to K-12 funding have not been restored.

“This is an education crisis,” said Reilly. “To cut K-12 education funding is just horrific.”

Ramon Cortines, the district’s new senior deputy superintendent, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he had recommended cuts to nearly all departments, including the iDivision.

“I don’t believe that we should be setting up fiefdoms,” he said.

Canter disagreed with that characterization.

“I think that from time to time there are certain new projects that you need to invest in,” said Canter, who strongly supports the iDivision. “And we cannot afford not to innovate.”

Five out of seven Westchester schools have joined the iDivision as part of the local autonomy movement over the last several months. The autonomy initiative, which is backed by Brewer, the teachers union and the majority of teachers and parents in the Westchester area, would allow parents and teachers to assert increased local control over school budgets, governance and lesson planning.

Loyola Marymount University is the Westchester schools’ network partner.

Despite the possibility of cutbacks to teaching positions and increased classroom sizes, Duffy said that the vast majority of the district’s educators remain upbeat.

Paul Duke, a Venice resident who teaches physical education at University High School, has heard that probationary teachers might be in jeopardy but he says that tenured colleagues with whom he has spoken do not seem preoccupied about losing their jobs.

“I think most teachers are feeling pretty unafraid right now,” Duke said. “They seem to be feeling pretty comfortable.”

“Morale is high,” Duffy added. “[Teachers] are very turned on about the actions that we have taken and that we will be undertaking over the next few weeks.”

One such action includes asking all district teachers not to teach the first hour of the school day on June 6th to protest the proposed cuts to education.

“We’re asking teachers to withhold their services for the homeroom hour that day in protest,” said Duffy.

Duke says that he will take part in the union action.

“I really believe in the concept of solidarity,” said the teacher.

If probationary teachers are laid off, that could have a ripple effect on many schools, including increased class size and teacher shortages.

“That would definitely be a step backward,” said Duke.

Educators and parents from L.A. Unified, including some from Westchester schools, have traveled to Sacramento to express their deep concerns about the fiscal crisis to state legislators. Oropeza says that she is aware of their anxieties and she shares them too.

“I’m very concerned that the state doesn’t seem to have enough money to help families and schools,” she said.

Brewer said recently that he too will be traveling to Sacramento to meet with the governor and other state lawmakers.

“The governor’s May 16th revise was very much like placing a Band-Aid on a huge, gaping wound,” said Reilly.

The board will be working with district officials over the next several weeks to decide which programs can be saved, streamlined or cut.

Canter said the board should take a different approach in deciding how they will adjust to the inevitable reductions at the district.

“It can’t be a line-by-line process,” Canter insisted. “There has to be a reorganization, and as a board, we haven’t had a lot of lead time to consider that.”

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