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A Tough Year for Public Schools : * With Less to Work With, the Resolve of Educators Will Count for Much

The opening of public schools in Orange County, normally a time of optimism, this year is a test of nerves. There’s less room, less money, less to work with. School administrators, teachers and students have known about the state budget crisis for some time, but suddenly the return to the classroom brings it home. Something is very different this September.

The advice that Cal State Fullerton President Milton A. Gordon gave recently to his beleaguered university community turns out to be sound counsel for the entire Orange County educational system. Even with all the bad budget news, he urged educators to work together to “carry this torch of excellence.” Amen. It’s a time to rally the troops in local schools and to make the best of things.

That will not be so easy to do. Indeed, some of the most basic assumptions about school life are changing in the midst of this most trying squeeze on educational resources in recent memory. Suddenly, we seem to have entered the era of education by user fee.

For example, the old maxim that there is no free ride suddenly has come true, quite literally, in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. Parents are going to have to pay $150 a year for each of their first two children riding buses to school. A third child will be $75; it is only when there is a fourth child that there is a free ride, small consolation for parents trying to outfit a young quartet in back-to-school attire. And the taxi meter is running for school athletes in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, where athletes now must pay for transportation to and from games and meets.

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Across the board, too, athletics are going to have to rely more on boosters for support, rather than on district funding. Even the upkeep of recreational facilities has had school districts scrambling to find dollars. Keeping things up will be especially difficult in Brea-Olinda Unified, where six custodians were laid off.

Then there is the matter of overcrowding. This year there are a record number of students, without the classrooms to accommodate them. Santa Ana, where the problem is most serious, has thrown up 500 portable classrooms, the equivalent of 20 new elementary schools. Larger classes, greater wear and tear on existing facilities and less space for recreation all erode the general quality of the educational experience. Money that goes for repairs means less money for teachers, which means bigger classes.

Nor is the pressure likely to get any easier to live with, as John Nelson, a business expert in the County Department of Education, noted recently. So it’s a new year, and a tough one at that. What kind of year it is will depend largely on the resolve--and good humor--of parents, teachers and administrators.


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