Esther Lee says she plans every minute of her seventh-grade science classes at Berendo Middle School in Koreatown.
“For a lot of my students, their only connection to academics is in school . . . so I feel I can never waste time,” she said.
But under a plan proposed by Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, Lee could be chopping a week off her schedule as early as this spring to help district officials balance a projected $640-million shortfall.
California school districts have the option of shortening the school year without losing key state funding for the next several years, and at least one other district has moved to shorten its calendar. Others, up and down the state, are considering the option.
Cortines had said he wanted to preserve, if not extend, the school year, but he said he is unable to balance the budget without major concessions from employee unions, whose leadership has generally resisted furlough days and pay cuts. In a news release Friday evening, he made the proposal to shave five school days and one noninstructional day off the calendar.
Leaders of both the teachers and administrators unions said they are fully aware of the financial crisis and are willing to negotiate.
Judith Perez, president of the administrators union, said the economic situation is so bleak that she suggested to Cortines in the fall that he consider cutting the school year as a one-year solution.
By announcing plans for a cut earlier in the year, district officials could have given teachers more time to plan their lessons and parents more time to find alternatives if schools closed earlier, Perez said.
“Here we are, with the spring semester beginning, and teachers don’t know what to expect,” she said.
Cortines said he believes that reducing the school year is a last resort and only seriously considered it when he tried to balance the budget and fell almost $100 million short.
The alternative to cutting the six days would be to declare bankruptcy or take other draconian measures in a district that has already raised class size and fired teachers, Cortines said. He is also proposing a parcel tax to help fund instructional programs.
Board member Yolie Flores said she thought a one-time shortening of the year was the best option and could help save teacher jobs and preserve continuity.
“I would rather have six less days this year than have a whole bunch of layoffs that would affect the district for years,” she said.
But some union leaders appear reluctant to return to the bargaining table.
“Enough is enough,” said Connie Moreno, a labor representative with the California School Employees Assn., which represents about 5,800 clerical and support staff in the district.
Moreno said that her union has shrunk by almost 1,000 members over the last year because of layoffs and that many of her members will soon be forced to take 40 days of unpaid leave.
“There’s not much more we can give,” she said.
District officials will hold an all-day meeting this week to go over the budget with union leaders, hoping to convince them that there is nowhere else to trim costs. In the meantime, many say it’s best to prepare for the worst.
“We need to think about how to help parents find care for their children” if the cuts become a reality, Flores said.
In the meantime, teachers like Lee will be scrambling to plan for an uncertain future and cramming as much as they can into their students’ lesson plans.
“I’m going to teach them like there’s no time left,” she said.