$1.9-Billion Education Windfall Will Help Ease Years of School Neglect

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Back before the tsunami-like impact of the recession sent the California economy staggering, Palmdale teacher Marty Meeden had a Spanish-speaking aide in his classroom every day for more than an hour to help the few children not ready to learn in English. Today, more of his students need help, but the aide is available for only 25 minutes, four times a week, to help them with their reading and math.

Until 1991, every campus in the Montebello School District had its own librarian to keep collections updated and guide children to their favorite volumes. Today, children and their teachers are on their own, and there is little money for new books.

High schools in Irvine used to supply their marching bands with instruments for free, and riding the team bus to play at out-of-town football games was taken for granted. Now, parents have to pay fees for both.

And in Los Angeles, the hallways at Morningside Elementary School used to be mopped and the desks wiped daily; now, teachers say dust from unswept floors causes sinus problems and teachers have to supply detergent and rags for students to clean their own desks.

For the past four years, teachers and school districts across the state have been making do on no-growth budgets, watching their campuses slip into disrepair, their classrooms bulge with new students and their educational necessities--such as teachers' aides, field trips and even reading and math workbooks--disappear.

Today, some relief is on the way. The state budget signed last week by Gov. Pete Wilson includes a $1.9-billion windfall for schools and community colleges--enough to stop the slash-and-burn cycle and restore some of what has been lost.

The new money in the budget translates to about $315 per student. About a third of that is earmarked for one-time expenses, such as school building repairs and computer purchases. The rest can be used for continuing costs, such as raising salaries or hiring enough teachers to reduce class sizes, which have grown to be the largest in the nation.

And the allocation includes the schools' first cost-of-living increase in five years--an increase that is barely above the rate of inflation, but enough to raise the state from 42nd to 40th in the nation in per-pupil spending.

"I think it's really going to help the morale . . . not just for the teachers, but the administrators and parents," said Palmdale's Meeden, the president of the teachers union local.

But school officials are warning that even though it sounds like a lot of money--especially to parents who have been called on in the past to bankroll the basics by selling candy or contributing to bake sales--the demands on the new funds will greatly exceed the supply.

And the gains could be offset by federal budget cuts now being considered in Washington, especially in urban districts that rely on those federal funds for students who are poor or disabled or not fluent in English.

Still, education experts say the infusion of cash does get education moving in a positive direction after a decade of decline. And that is a relief.

"We'll have to keep building on that for it to become really significant, but at least having turned that corner is a nice thing," said Bob Wells, assistant executive director of the statewide Assn. of California School Administrators.

The pot of money most likely to be subject to immediate scrutiny is the one-time allocation that amounts to about $1,500 per classroom.

That money is intended to help school districts take care of annoyances such as paint-peeled walls, leaky ceilings, defunct and outdated computers and a shortage of books that sometimes prevents students from taking them home at night.

School districts must hold public hearings to discuss those issues before spending the money, and if they decide to spend it on other things--such as bonuses for employees--they must hold a second hearing. As a result, school officials do not expect to spend that money until late this year or even early next year.

Competition will be stiff for the rest of the money. Over the past years, districts have been forced into a series of spiraling cutbacks--music and art classes were eliminated, counselors and school psychologists reassigned, sports programs curtailed, class sizes increased and, in many districts, salaries cut by as much as 10%.

Now the dilemma is which of those things, if any, to restore.

"We've gone through a long period of neglect, to put it bluntly," said Supt. Sid Thompson, who heads the 640,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest. "We are very appreciative of any infusion of money, but the point is that the need is so enormous that it literally is but a dent."

The money should help school get off to a smooth start this fall, however, by allowing the district to restore teachers' salary cuts and avoid a threatened strike by the teachers union, Thompson said.

The Los Angeles district will receive about $31 million expressly for deferred maintenance, educational technology and instructional materials. But the district's backlog of campus repairs alone amounts to $600 million, Thompson said.

Over the past five years, the district has cut more than $2 billion--an average of about $400 million a year, or nearly 10% of its $4.5-billion annual budget.

Money from the state lottery, which was supposed to go for books, paper, field trips and classroom equipment, has been used instead to balance the district's general fund budget.

Custodians, librarians, nurses and others have been let go, and about 300 teaching positions eliminated. But the biggest cutback was in salaries--several years of pay cuts have left employees earning less now than they did six years ago, and teachers and other employees want that money restored.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, officials are hoping to use new money to reduce class sizes, give employees raises and refurbish 50-year-old schools with roofs that leaked like sieves during last winter's heavy rains.

"You have all of this pent-up need after five years of budget cuts," said Larry Bozanich, financial services officer for the 78,000-student district, which will get about $36 million for one-time costs on top of its cost-of-living increase. About $32 million of that is earmarked for a voluntary desegregation plan.

The new money is much needed in Orange County, where many school districts will start the year having to make up losses related to the county's investment pool collapse and subsequent bankruptcy.

The Garden Grove Unified School District, for example, is still owed $5.4 million by the county from that debacle. The district, which has more schools than any other in the county, had to cut nearly $3 million from its budget last year to offset that loss. The new money it will receive from the state includes about $1 million to bring its per-pupil spending closer to the state average.

The Irvine Unified School District is planning to spread out its $10-million bankruptcy-related loss--10% of its $100-million budget--over 10 years. The $1.8 million the district will receive in unexpected funds over two years will help offset that. But, said Deputy Supt. Dean Waldfogel, the district would need a $20-million windfall to enable it to bring its per-student spending up to the national average.

In the past five years the district has raised fees for summer school, sports and music, started cleaning schools only every other day, cut its spending on paper, pencils and other materials by 25% and increased class size to 31 in elementary school and as high as 38 or more in high schools. The district also put a planned computer network linking schools, homes, universities and libraries on hold.

"It's overwhelming, just remarkable," said Waldfogel of the district's budget cuts.

Employees in Irvine have gone four years without salary increases, meaning the district will be under pressure to spend some of the new money for raises.

Salaries went down in many Los Angeles area districts during the past five years.

Montebello teachers, who were among the most highly paid in the county, gave up 2.9% of their salaries three years ago and this year signed a contract that would have reduced their salaries by another 4.2%.

The state budget adds more than $4 million to the Montebello district's general fund budget--enough to restore the salary cuts and pump money into classrooms for instructional needs.

That's welcome news to Dorothy Chu, a second-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez School in Bell Gardens and vice president of the Montebello Teachers Assn.

Chu said the two computers in her classroom are so old that if they break down, they are not worth repairing. Her educational games are missing pieces, but she doesn't dare throw them away because they won't be replaced. The record player she has is 40 years old, and headphones the children use to listen to cassette tapes are scarce.

The new money in the budget, she said, "definitely has to go back into the classroom." The budget-related problem cited most often by teachers is class size. In California, elementary school classes increased from an average of about 27 pupils in 1987 to about 30 in 1993--the highest class size in the nation.

"It's a horror, because you have to meet their individual needs to give them a good start and they don't get that attention because the class is so large," said Joan Schlosser, a third-grade teacher at Morningside Elementary in San Fernando.

She usually has 29 pupils in her class. But, on days when other teachers are sick and no substitute can be found, her class can grow to 36 or even more because the students have to be divided among the teachers who are there.

"We don't get as much done," said Schlosser, who added that times have never been tougher during her 30 years in the classroom. "These cuts have been Gargantuan, and over the years they've been felt more and more."

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