Tough decisions lie ahead for Los Angeles Unified schools
Last school year, Carson High School students skipped 1,926 days of class. This year, the school reduced that figure by 20%, thanks to an aggressive intervention program that included tracking down students and meeting with parents.
Much of the credit goes to Sally Stevens, one of two school attendance counselors who are responsible for finding chronic truants.
“They’re the ones who deal with the hard-core students, and they find a way to get them to school,” said Ken Keener, Carson’s principal.
But Stevens is among a group of nearly 2,000 Los Angeles Unified School District employees who are in danger of losing their jobs as the nation’s second-largest district wrestles with a nearly $400-million budget shortfall.
Earlier this year, the district issued preliminary layoff notices to almost 7,000 employees. This month, however, the school board rescinded almost 5,000 of those pink slips after the teachers union agreed to a four-day furlough, which saved $42 million.
But that wasn’t enough, and some school positions were funded by federal stimulus money that has now expired. So campus administrators must decide whether to reallocate scarce funding to pay for those counselors, teachers and nurses who remain in limbo or to lay them off.
District officials said they are continuing to look for additional funding to protect as many positions as possible, but they began sending out final layoff notices Friday. Aside from counselors, others who are receiving the notices include teachers, social workers, nurses and psychologists.
“We’re going to try to the very last moment to save jobs,” said Vivian Ekchian, the district’s chief human resources officer.
Parents and students at numerous schools have held rallies and protests in recent weeks in an effort to pressure the district to save their staffs. Several groups have taken their cases to the school board, and others plan to.
Carson administrators have budgeted enough money to have a part-time attendance counselor next year. But job openings in the district are decided strictly by seniority, so Stevens, who has worked for L.A. Unified for four years, could lose her position to someone who has worked in the system longer.
“It’s a frightening time,” said Stevens, who has two young children and is married to an out-of-work teacher.
Stevens has signed up to be a substitute teacher, which would mean a loss of pay but “at least I’ll have benefits,” she said.
Still, substitutes have even more competition for work now that they are vying for jobs with the many other teachers laid off by the district.
On a recent Monday morning, Stevens was fretting because Roberto Mayorga hadn’t shown up yet. Stevens had spent much of the year trying to break the freshman’s habit of missing Fridays and Mondays. She often visited the boy’s home and appealed to his family.
“I hope nothing happened,” she said.
When Roberto arrived almost an hour after classes started, Stevens greeted him at the front door. “My friend is here,” she said.
She spoke briefly with Roberto’s father, who had driven his son to school after he overslept, then took the student into her office. She gave him $10 worth of bus tokens to make sure he had a way to get to school and promised him a real “Simpsons” cartoon drawing if he continued to go to class.
Later in the morning, Stevens called a junior into her office to make sure he had the right paperwork to transfer to another school and to remind him not to cut classes.
“You know the easiest way to get someone to stop nagging?” she asked. “Do what they say.”
Stevens and other counselors said they are concerned that students may not trust new counselors.
“One of my big, overarching goals is building relationships, and all of that goes out the window when a new person comes in,” said Mary Ann Dibs, an attendance counselor at 75th Street Elementary School.
Keener, the Carson principal, said he hoped Stevens could return but acknowledged that it was a long shot.
“If we can’t keep Sally, I hope we get someone as good as she is,” he said. “That person will be hard to find.”
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