Centinela Schools Face $2.2-Million Debt : Education: Officials say costs will have to be cut, but teachers and staff are not pleased with the district's proposals, which include eliminating some positions and reducing salaries.


The Centinela Valley Union High School District will be $2.2 million in debt by June 30 unless district officials take drastic steps to cut costs, officials say.

Supt. Joseph M. Carrillo, who became the district's top administrator last year, traces the district's financial crisis to several factors, including lower enrollment figures and excessive legal fees in the wake of allegations that black employees were targeted for discrimination.

Carrillo said the district, which is composed of three schools serving 5,800 students in Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lennox, is teetering on the verge of insolvency and that the day of reckoning is at hand.

To balance the 1993-94 budget, he is proposing a variety of cost-cutting measures, including eliminating some positions, cutting salaries, reducing the workweek of dozens of employees and capping what the district pays for employee health benefits.

Under the plan, classified employees, who include janitors, clerks, typists and cooks, would bear the brunt of the cuts. Twelve positions would be eliminated and remaining employees could see their work day reduced from eight hours to seven. Some current year-round employees could be out of work two months a year.

The district could also save money by not filling 10 teaching positions, a move that would boost the student-teacher ratio to 33 to 1.

Carrillo contends that previous administrations dipped into a special reserve fund to cushion the district against rising costs and decreasing revenues--a policy that he says encouraged the district to live beyond its means.

The reserve fund was created in 1985 with the proceeds from the sale of Lennox High School. From a high of more than $10 million, the reserve fund now stands at about $5.5 million.

Tapping the fund for capital improvements "became addictive and a way to avoid putting a plan together for future years," Carrillo said.

Former interim Supt. Tom Barkelew and his predecessor, McKinley M. Nash, whose firing in 1990 stirred racial turmoil in the district, bristled at Carrillo's portrayal of their fiscal policies.

"We never painted a bright picture of financing--ever," said Barkelew, who left Centinela a year ago to become interim superintendent of the Wiseburn School District in Hawthorne.

Said Nash: "I left the district solvent, and the programs we implemented were all discontinued so our programs were therefore not a drain on the district."

Nash was ousted in 1990 after massive student walkouts in support of Hawthorne High's black principal, who was targeted for demotion. Nash was among more than a dozen black employees who filed discrimination complaints against the district.

Last December, the U.S. Department of Education concluded that a racially hostile environment has existed at the district for several years and that administrators have not done enough to address the problem. District officials, who have questioned the fairness of the agency's investigation, are establishing a plan to avoid fostering racial tensions in the future.

Before it can implement its austerity plan, the district must complete negotiations with the unions representing teachers and classified employees. Administrators have been told their salaries will decline by 10% to help balance the budget. Carrillo says he too will take a salary cut when he negotiates his new contract with the school board next month.

To win support for what Carrillo calls his "economic recovery plan," the superintendent has been meeting with teachers, classified staffers and parents during budget workshops over the past several weeks. So far, however, the strategy has few advocates.

Classified employees are so incensed by the district's proposal that they have been picketing at the district's headquarters and two high schools at least one morning every week for the past couple of months. If negotiations remain at the current impasse, the workers could call for a strike authorization vote next month.

"We know there has to be cuts--we're not close-minded to that," said Dot DeLeon, labor relations representative for the California School Employees Assn., which represents the district's classified workers. "But you can't make the district solvent at the expense of classified employees.

"We're going to try to get board members where it hurts them," DeLeon added. "If we have to picket their houses, we are going to do that."

Teachers are also enraged by the proposals.

Last Saturday, dozens of teachers handed out 3,000 flyers raising questions about the district's priorities and noting that administrators have spent money in the last year on car phones, computer systems, furniture and new carpeting.

The teachers contend that district officials are presenting a worst-case scenario to gain leverage at the bargaining table. They say the projected shortfall could be met by simply paying off some one-time debts.

"Our position is take the money (from the special reserve fund), pay for past sins, errors and omissions, get your house in order and go from here," said Lauren Sanders, executive director of South Bay United Teachers.

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