Ventura Unified School District officials have announced that they may be forced to lay off teachers and other district employees if they cannot find other ways to reduce a projected $2.9-million deficit.
Unless district officials and union negotiators reach an alternative solution by Friday, the budget crunch could force the elimination of 23 elementary teaching posts and 21 secretarial, maintenance and clerk positions.
Officials said regularly scheduled retirements would cover many of the lost jobs, but acknowledged that the cuts would further erode the quality of education in Ventura schools.
"Any time you increase class size, it is going to impact the service you give your students, . . . but at this time, we don't have any other choice," Assistant Supt. Joseph Richards Jr. said.
Richards announced the cuts during Tuesday's board meeting as part of a five-point contingency plan to be enacted if union and district negotiators fail to come up with other solutions.
The remaining three parts of the plan call for as-yet undetermined administrative layoffs and benefit reductions, cancellation of some retiree benefits, and leaving unfilled 18 positions that were eliminated at middle schools and high schools during last year's budget crisis.
The elementary school cuts would result from a directive to raise the average student-teacher ratio from 30-to-1 to 33-to-1, which the district's other schools reached last year, Richards said.
The possibility of an increase in class size was not well received at area elementary schools. "I think it's going to put more pressure on classroom teachers," said Christi Pilon, Montalvo School special education teacher.
"Putting three more kids in every classroom is simply going to make it that much harder on the teachers," Pilon said. "They're demanding more and more, and they're taking more and more away."
Most Montalvo teachers were unaware of the district proposal, but after reviewing a copy of the contingency plan, many saw it as the lesser of two evils.
"No one wants larger class size, but then no one wants anyone to be laid off either," third-grade teacher Mary Grisafe said.
Daylong negotiations between district and union officials continued Wednesday, although no decisions were made. Union officials said it was possible that an agreement could be reached on a salary and benefit reduction package that could stave off some of the job reductions.
"We are all operating on the premise that we'd like to find a way out of this if we can, but we know that it is really complex," said John Gennaro, president of the Ventura Unified Education Assn.
"The bottom line is that in California, we're going through a severe budget crunch and there's no guarantee that things will not get worse," Gennaro said.
If the district and union leaders are unable to agree on salary and benefit cuts, the board will have no option other than laying off employees, Richards said.
"We have already cut supply budgets, conference and travel costs, and more than 90% of our budget is salaries and benefits," he said.
While board members are allowed to impose mandatory salary cuts on non-union employees, teachers and other union employees are exempt, Richards said.
However, Gennaro and other union members insist that the budget cuts should be meted out equally across the district.
"Teachers take a greater hit in the contingency plan because we represent a greater proportion of the budget," Gennaro said. "But proportionally, other employee groups will have to take some type of a reduction as well."