Wanda Soto's classroom at Woodworth Elementary in Inglewood is decorated with the crayon-paper-glue art that only first-graders can master. The signs are happy: Hola! Hello!
Soto, who spent $50 of her own money on the supplies, is proud of the busy, inviting atmosphere. This is her first job and she says it suits her. Except she would like some more textbooks.
On the other side of town, Hudnell Elementary Principal Michael Adelman bought the stack of trash bags that classrooms will need until school is out next month. "I'll eventually get reimbursed when we get some petty cash around here," he said. "Sometimes we can borrow supplies from other schools, but everybody's low."
Such is the tight state of finances in the Inglewood School District as it rounds the bend toward the end of a bumpy fiscal year. Yet, because of personnel and supply cuts, the district will finish the 1993-94 school year with about $2 million.
This is good news for a district that can use some: Last fall, county education officials assigned a fiscal adviser to the district when it teetered toward insolvency with a $2-million deficit. State officials cited poor leadership and bad management practices as reasons the district failed to anticipate its budget problems.
To get out of trouble, the district closed Hillcrest Continuation School, laid off 18 teachers and 11 staff members and cut supplies, including textbooks. And it worked.
"But we're not out of danger yet," said school board President Loystene Irvin. The proposed 1994-95 budget includes $1.8 million more in expenditures than the district expects in revenue, even with the $2-million carry-over from this year.
Income from the state is not definite yet. "Between now and June 30 we don't ever know what's going to happen," said Kermet Dixson, assistant superintendent for business services. "We just hope it doesn't get worse."
District finance officials say they've already cut to the bone and now must turn to the messy prospect of renegotiating teacher benefits to balance the budget before June 30.
"There are going to be very few opportunities for reduction," Dixson said. "We can't have wholesale layoffs. There aren't that many people left."
About 87% of the district's budget is tied up in salaries and benefits; another 9% is dedicated to hard such as utilities that can't be argued.
A state panel of experts sent to review the district in October pointed to work contracts and free health insurance for all employees' dependents as fiscally impractical. Last year, the district renegotiated the benefits for classified personnel but not for teachers.
Dixson said the school board will be presented with budget reductions Wednesday and said a benefits renegotiation package is scheduled to be presented to the unions in the next two weeks.
Union representatives did not return repeated telephone calls.
Some school board members wonder why Inglewood is again facing a painful budget balancing act.
"The kinds of things that got us into difficulty with the county and state should have been anticipated," said Larry Aubry, a board member for six years. "Somehow as a district we were not as vigilant as we needed to be. The board relies on the staff to inform it, but I guess these decisions are just too important to rely on other people for."
Board member Dexter Henderson said at a recent budget workshop that the board needs to develop a philosophy on how the district should spend money.
Aubry agreed. "We are still reactive. We are not saying, 'These are the areas we want to put our dough into.' "
Just how the board will set priorities depends on what kind of person takes the reins from Supt. George J. McKenna III when his contract expires at the end of next month, Aubry said.
"I think we have not had the kind of communication and accountability that is required," he said.
McKenna could not be reached for comment.
But Dixson points to the state's recent crisis in funding education as the real issue. "They can tell us to make five-year budget plans and that sounds good, but when you don't know what kind of money is really coming in, it doesn't mean much," she said.
The district would not be facing such a deficit if only enrollment hadn't gone down by 300 students, which translated to almost $1 million less revenue from the state, Dixson said. State money is based on the number of students who attend each day.
"We have no idea why enrollment went down across grade levels as it did in the last semester," Dixson said. "We thought it might be the earthquake."
Meanwhile, teachers and principals in the district's 18 schools must continue teaching about 16,695 children.
"A good teacher can teach skills with just a blackboard and chalk," said Woodworth Elementary Principal Lacy Alexander. But textbooks help, he admits.
Community correspondent Susan Woodward contributed to this story.