Laguna Beach Says 24 Teachers Subject to Layoff

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Laguna Beach Unified School District told about 150 parents and teachers Tuesday night that 24 teachers will receive layoff notices and class sizes will increase next year to cope with declining school revenue.

Supt. Paul M. Possemato said classes will increase from 26 to about 30 students per room beginning in September. Also, nine members of the administrative staff might have to take pay cuts.

Teachers will be notified today, Thursday and Friday by school principals.

"It's intense. People are devastated," said Joanie LaHage, a science teacher at Laguna Beach High School. "We are still in shock."

School officials, however, stressed that not all the teachers given layoff notices will necessarily be laid off. State law requires advance notification. Also, school officials said they must tell county and state education officials by Friday how they plan to balance their budget.

District officials said the cutbacks are necessary to make up for a $1-million budget shortfall created by declining property values, the Orange County bankruptcy and 1993 firestorms. The district's total budget for 1996-97 is $13.4 million.

Laguna Beach officials will hold a series of meetings over the next two months to pinpoint precisely where the cuts will occur. Meanwhile, parents and teachers and other community members vowed to raise money to minimize the impact of what school officials characterize as a "fiscal crisis."

"We have to step up as a community," said Kevin Donavan, who has two children in the district. "When this community is asked to do something, this community usually ponies up."

During the two-hour meeting, audience members questioned why school officials didn't foresee the problem. The superintendent replied that the county's bankruptcy slowed the release of vital financial information regarding property taxes, thus preventing them from grasping the full extent of the problem.

"Was someone asleep at the switch?" Possemato said. "I don't think that's a good assessment."

The layoffs and program cuts will take effect in September, with staff reductions based on seniority. The district has about 120 certificated teachers and about 2,400 students.

The Laguna Beach and Newport-Mesa unified school districts are the only Orange County school districts that receive funding from property tax revenue rather than from state funds based on attendance. The district anticipates $500,000 less in property tax revenue than it expected.

The district also had to spend about $1 million to repair school property that was damaged in the 1993 Laguna fires. It lost another $700,000 in the Orange County bankruptcy.

To offset those financial hits, the district imposed transportation fees and cut $390,000 from its current budget.

Since news of impending layoffs broke, both parents and other community members have phoned schools with concerns about the impact on the district, school officials said. Most callers expressed worry about the potential loss of special programs, including music, language, and science and technology classes.

Schools officials, however, are reminding parents that Laguna Beach now has among the smallest class sizes in the county. The district also has extensive programs in music and art that many other districts already have slashed from their budgets.

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