Every weekday before 7 a.m., Betty Carson dons a neon vest, grabs her stop sign and walks the mile from her Watts home to Florence Jordan Elementary School.
For an hour each morning and again in the afternoon, Carson, 82, ushers dozens of children toting backpacks and lunch bags across busy 103rd Street, shielding them from morning traffic, stray dogs and gang members who sometimes recruit nearby.
"It's more than just seeing them into the schoolyard," Carson said. "You're their protection."
On the Los Angeles Unified School District's first day of school Tuesday, union advocates, education officials and crossing guards rallied to criticize city officials for cutting back on crossing guards in recent years. Since 2008, the guard ranks have declined 37% to 358 this year, according to data compiled by a city union group. Much of that is due to attrition: A hiring freeze that began in 2009 prevented the city transportation department from replacing guards who retired.
Elementary schools requested crossing guards at 510 intersections this year, but only 331 were deployed, because that's all the $6.4-million crossing guard budget will fund, officials said. Fulfilling all crossing guard requests would cost nearly $3 million more each year.
On average, guards — many of them elderly — earn about $92 a day, or about $16,560 a year.
Transportation officials hope to hire up to 40 additional guards this year at an annual cost of about $650,000, said Transportation Department spokesman Bruce Gillman. The new positions still must first be approved by city budget analysts and Mayor Eric Garcetti's office.
"It's not going to cover every intersection, but it's a start," Gillman said, adding that student safety is a "priority for everyone."
The rally Tuesday, held outside Los Angeles City Hall, was sponsored by Fix LA, a coalition of community and labor groups that has criticized the city's spending policies, saying borrowing agreements negotiated before the Great Recession have harmed city services and wasted more than $300 million a year in taxpayer funds.
Any barrier to getting children to school increases attendance and dropout problems, said Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer.
"To get to the graduation stage," Zimmer said, "you must first safely cross the street."
The city deploys guards based on requests from schools and a subsequent assessment of dangers at intersections. Crossings without traffic control devices are given top priority, said Doris Weston, a transportation department supervisor for 28 years. But those assignments can be the scariest for guards, she said.
"You're driving in the morning, putting on makeup or checking your phone," Weston said, "and all that's keeping you away from a bunch of little kids is a person holding a stop sign."