Faced with a looming budget deficit of nearly $400 billion and limited choices of where to make deep cuts, officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) may soon consider closing schools where the student population is dwindling.

One of the schools that would possibly be on the chopping block is Playa del Rey Elementary School, in the Del Rey area, and that has parents whose children are enrolled at the school aghast.

“It would be a shame to completely lose this school,” said Lynette Conover, whose daughter attends the elementary school.

The student population at Playa del Rey Elementary has dropped over the years and stands at approximately 222. That, coupled with the fact that at the district’s December 9th school board meeting a plan to approve 14 new charter schools during difficult economic times will be discussed, comes as unsettling news to Cyndi Steele.

“LAUSD already has a terrible reputation for the quality of education,” wrote Steele, a parent of two children at the elementary school, in a recent e-mail. “Now, even more of our innocent children are going to suffer in larger-sized classes with teachers who have even less to help them do their job.

“My concern is that LAUSD has a poor reputation for quality education and Playa del Rey Elementary could change that, and we may lose it.”

John Buckley, who is an area director for the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, agrees with his fellow parents about how important the school is to the neighborhood.

“In my opinion, it’s a very high-quality school,” said Buckley. “It has a real community feel to it, and in an era where LAUSD is increasing class sizes, we can’t afford to lose our dedicated teaching staff to budget cuts.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last month that he would be seeking additional budget cuts to help offset a massive state budget deficit. Already faced with eliminating nearly 700 jobs over the summer in an effort to reduce its own fiscal woes, the school district is now facing the possibility of losing several hundred million dollars in 2009 and an additional $300 million the following year.

L.A. Unified superintendent David L. Brewer — recently reported by the Los Angeles Times as possibly being in trouble with some of Los Angeles’s civic leaders — wrote to the school district employees last month, informing them of the predicament that they could soon be facing if the governor pursues his plan of deep school budget cuts.

“This [current financial] situation is especially urgent because California’s financial picture is getting worse every day,” the superintendent wrote in the letter. “The governor called for an emergency legislative session in November, and we anticipate that their actions could swell LAUSD’s current $375 million deficit to more than a half-billion dollars, which would require even steeper, potentially devastating mid-year slashing.”

Bill Ring, an organizer of the Local District 3 Parent Community Advisory Council, who has announced his candidacy for the district’s school board seat to replace Marlene Canter, feels that any positions that must be eliminated should begin within L.A. Unified’s administration and not affect teachers or students.

“In the event that there are budget cutbacks, the focus should be on cuts at Beaudry, and not at local schools,” said Ring, referring to the school district’s downtown Los Angeles Beaudry Building headquarters. “The schools will be devastated if the focus on cutbacks is at the local level.”

Parents whose children attend Playa del Rey are also bracing themselves for the possibility that their school, along with others that have seen their number of students decline, may be on the district’s chopping block.

“We’re very optimistic as a group, but some are a little less than others,” Steele, the president of Playa del Rey Elementary’s booster club, admitted.

Buckley, who plans to send his young daughter to the elementary school next year, developed a fondness for the school almost the moment that he decided to take a tour there.

“When we first arrived at the school we quickly discovered the school was a special place,” Buckley recalled. “We noticed the dedication of the teachers and the support staff through their involvement with the Booster Club and the organization of after school extracurricular activities such as a running club, as well as the establishment of a learning garden — none of which they got paid for, but instead they did it for the good of our children. We also discovered the strong sense of community among the parents.”

Steele, who attended the elementary school 25 years ago, is impressed with the community service activities that the children at the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school take part in.

“The kids do some wonderful things for their school and for the community,” she said. “That’s what makes it such a special place.”

Conover said that in a recent project, children from the elementary school collected over 150,000 servings of food for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

“They also stuffed over 200 Easter eggs this year,” said Conover, the past president of the Kiwanis Club. “If LAUSD decided to close the school, it wouldn’t be losing just a school; it would be losing a family.”

This is one reason education advocates like Ring feel that any policy that targets schools for closure before looking at administrative cutbacks is wrong.

“The focus should be on middle management, not teachers,” Ring, whose son graduated from Venice High School two years ago, stressed. “I realize that the state is in dire financial need, but we cannot afford to have our children and our teachers take a back seat during this budget crisis.”

The Board of Education will meet on December 9th and many of the parents plan to be present to make their plea to keep their neighborhood school open.

“I’ll be talking about the history of the school and what it means to our community and our children,” said Steele, whose siblings also attended Playa del Rey Elementary. “I know that it’s not a done deal, but I don’t want to have to consider the possibility that we might lose our school.”

“Our kids love this school,” Conover added. “We feel that we have a gem here and that LAUSD is trying to take that away from us.”

Calls to L.A. Unified and to Canter for comment had not been returned at Argonaut press time.

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