At least 100 Montebello Unified School District employees, including teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors, may be laid off as district officials grapple with budget cuts so severe that Supt. John P. Cook said the quality of education is in danger of "sliding into mediocrity."
Dwindling state funds have forced the district to strip $19 million from its 1991-92 budget, leaving a no-frills education package that will mean the loss of many services and programs for teachers and students, Cook said.
"These cuts will negatively affect the education of the kids in Montebello," Cook said. "(But) we are talking about (similar cuts in) districts up and down the state. We are all in trouble."
After months of haggling, a budget committee made up of union and district representatives, this week recommended that 200 positions be eliminated by laying off 100 people and transferring about 100 others to different jobs. The district employs more than 3,000. The cuts will be the subject of public hearings next week and a vote of the board April 19.
The budget committee also has recommended that class sizes for students in grades four through 12 be increased from 31 to more than 35 students per class.
The brunt of the cuts would be borne by teachers who have temporary contracts. Assistant Supt. Walter Popkin said about 100 teachers with temporary contracts may lose their jobs. Temporary contract teachers typically fill in for teachers who are on extended leave or who have been assigned to a special project. The district now employs 161 temporary contract teachers, about one-third of whom provide the district's growing Latino enrollment with bilingual programs.
Most temporary contract teachers are expected to be replaced in the classroom by administrators, librarians, counselors and others who have teaching credentials and more seniority.
"We hope we can save at least 61 (temporary contract teachers)," Popkin said. "We may have to lose more if there are not enough retirements."
Popkin said that the Board of Education is studying an early retirement plan for senior employees. For every early retirement, district officials are hoping to keep a temporary contract teacher, especially one who is bilingual, he said.
The budget committee also has recommended that the positions of all 17 elementary school librarians be eliminated, as well as eight high school and six intermediate school counselors, nine nurses and six remedial reading teachers. Another 94 positions, including about 40 clerical jobs and 15 maintenance jobs, would also go.
Popkin said that the clerical workers will, in all likelihood, lose their jobs, as will administrators, counselors, nurses and librarians who do not have teaching credentials.
"I'm definitely one of the prime candidates," said a dispirited Peter Fong, who has been a counselor at Schurr High School for nine years and has no teaching certificate.
"Philosophically, I can say that I have no control over what's happening, that I have to roll with the punches. But that's philosophically. When I really think about it, I get very bitter and angry. It's not like we're selling Edsels here. We are trying to educate kids. . . . We're here beating our brains out."
Fong, a graduate of UCLA with degrees in speech and education, said he has had a difficult time explaining to his two young daughters what layoff means.
"They keep asking me what I did wrong," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong."
He said morale in the schools has plunged, with many teachers unsure of their future with the district, and others angry by the budget committee's recommendation. The mood of the teachers and staff has permeated the school, he said.
"There is so much uncertainty, it can't help but be passed on to the students," Fong said.
The board must cut $13.5 million from its $135-million budget in order to make it through the 1991-92 school year. It already has cut $3.8 million from the 1990-91 school year budget by getting rid of substitute teachers, reducing instructional supplies, equipment purchases, special programs for teachers and students, and, among other things, refusing to buy new uniforms for school bands.
Those cuts will be carried over into the 1991-92 school year, but even then, district officials said an additional $14 million must be cut in order to balance the budget. The bulk of the cuts, $12 million, will be made in personnel because 87% of the district's total budget goes to salaries, district officials said.
Eleanor Chow, a member of the Montebello school board for 20 years, said the cuts have sickened her.
"I have never in my 20 years experienced such devastating cuts," she said. "What we are doing now is dying a slow death. We are cutting here and there, down to the bare bones. The public wants quality education, but that takes money and they have to be willing to pay for it. I don't think they will really understand that unless they get a shock."
She said that instead of cuts, she would rather see the district continue to provide the highest quality of education that it can, and when the money runs out, "shut the schools down." She said that would focus attention on the problem.
At one time, Montebello Unified School District was one of the wealthiest districts in Los Angeles County, district officials said. The district, as well as other school districts and cities, were sent into a tailspin with the passage of Proposition 13, which lowered property taxes, and consequently the main source of school funding.
But Proposition 13 is not the only factor contributing to the district's current financial crunch. For at least the last five years, district officials estimate, the state has given them 13.5% less than the cost of inflation. The district, however, made up the difference, using $6 million of its reserves to keep employees apace of inflation.
Other costs to the district include: $2 million in unfunded building projects, including architectural fees that the state reneged on; a drop of $3 million in lottery funds; a $1.3-million project to put buildings on the Gage and Garfield Avenue school site. (If the district leaves the land vacant, it must forfeit the property to the state), and the loss of $1.5 million in fees from the adult education program.
The board will consider the budget committee's recommendation, Supt. Cook's own recommendations, and public testimony at a series of public hearings to be held at 7 p.m. from April 15 to 18 in the Montebello Intermediate School Auditorium, 1600 Whittier Blvd. A final list of budget cuts is expected on Friday, April 19.
Community correspondent Michelle Barnes contributed to this story.