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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : The Tap’s Been Shut Off on Schools : Classrooms and administration have been pared to the bone. But educational quality is still the goal.

<i> Bill Anton is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District</i>

California’s second drought has reached its most critical stage. Unlike the first drought involving water, this one cannot be remedied by natural causes, such as more rain, or by asking citizens to sacrifice by using less tap water.

This second drought is a statewide shortfall in funding for quality education, made all the more severe in recent months by the recession. School districts throughout the nation have adopted conservation measures to cut or reduce whatever they can in order to preserve at least a basic level of education. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the nation, reduced its 1991-92 budget by $241 million, and during the past 14 months has cut a total of $630 million.

In recent days, the problem has been magnified by additional budget shortfalls in Sacramento. Our district was, therefore, faced with the task of coming up with an additional $33 million in cuts.

Last Tuesday--truly one of the saddest days in my 39 years with the district--our school board members painfully voted on my recommendation to increase elementary and junior high school class size by an average of three pupils in order to meet the latest round of cutbacks.

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You can imagine how unhappy our teachers will be Monday as the academic year begins for most of the schools in the district. The increase in class size means instructors will be stretched even more.

It may take the students and the parents a little while to feel the full impact of the unavoidable cutbacks. When they do, I hope they will gain a greater appreciation of the problems we face and pressure their elected representatives to correct the funding inequities. Unfortunately, the state Legislature chooses to interpret Proposition 98 (the voter-approved 1988 initiative) as a maximum amount of guaranteed funding, rather than the minimum it was and is intended to be.

Until that imbalance is corrected, it is important for taxpayers and parents to understand what our school district and others are doing to implement “conservation” programs. If any good can come out of the current crisis in our school system and others across the nation, it is that steps have been taken to erase claims of “administrative largess” that have been leveled against us.

The district has eliminated or downgraded 220 executive and managment positions this year, in addition to 10 of our 35 superintendents and 11 division heads and branch managers.

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Tough decisions have also resulted in reductions in the following areas, among others: management personnel and programs; custodians, maintenance, clerical and data-processing personnel; school supplies, student transportation services and recreation programs.

In spite of this budget crisis, positive steps are under way:

The district is approaching collective bargaining with teachers and other unions in a new way. Rather than negotiate on the basis of management versus labor, the district will bargain on the basis of mutual interest issues.

School management has been restructured and is being phased in so that planning and decision-making is made at each elementary, middle, high and special school by the parents, teachers and local administrators. Parents, however, are the pivotal factor of our education delivery system, because the child of an involved parent has a better chance for success.

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This restructuring concept had already begun, was already in place and is not just a result of the budget dilemma. However, the cutbacks in our central and division administration makes school site decision-making all the more valuable.

One of the immediate tasks of this district is to seek new sources of funds so that we can reduce our classroom size, reinstate some of our programs and take other steps to provide the best education we can.

Yet, it would be remiss of any educator or those in education leadership positions to use the current fiscal crisis as a crutch to support the argument that high goals in quality instruction should be put on hold during the fiscal drought. Compromising our education is akin to believing that water-quality standards should be lowered during a water shortage.

The district has adopted specific goals for the early 1990s that I implore all of us--employees, business, religious institutions and especially our parents--to strive to achieve no matter what shape our budget is in.

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In addition to completely restructuring the district by 1993 to deliver an education program more effectively, these goals include:

-- Constructing classrooms for an additional 15,000 students;

-- Improving student attendance;

-- Improving academic scores;

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-- By June, 1994, guaranteeing that every graduating senior will have received a career education and preparation to enter into the job market or a post-secondary school.

These goals are not pipe dreams. Drought or no drought, we must keep the educational pipelines open and the reservoirs full.


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