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Burbank Unified school board defines ‘insanity’

AS IF YOU ASKED

It has been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing

the same way over and over, each time expecting a better result. If

that’s true, prepare five straitjackets, and perhaps a nurse at

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school district headquarters who can calmly call to Burbank’s school

board over the PA system, “It’s medication time. Line up for

medication. It’s medication time.”

Late last month, the board had the grim duty of receiving a report

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on district employees to be notified they might not have jobs for the

next school year. The district must provide notices by certain dates,

or otherwise surrender the ability to cut payroll when budget figures

are more reliable than those available today.

Sending “discontinuation” notices to teachers in 129 full-time

positions in kindergarten through fifth grade does not mean 129 will

be laid off. Sending the notices does not bar the district from

filling every slot next year. But if district and state budget woes

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deteriorate to what many now imagine to be the very worst scenarios

possible, the notices retain laying off the list of certificated

employees -- but ONLY those on the list -- as one of the tools in the

district’s box for contending with the cash crisis.

That said, it was astonishing to watch the board at one meeting

last month -- then at another just last week -- receive, address and

act on the list exactly the way it has handled most controver- sies,

utterly oblivious to the lessons members should have learned many

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times by now. That is, they continue serving as a barely interested

but put- upon rubber stamp, no matter the enormity of an issue’s

impact on students.

Despite many episodes that saw the board discovering the folly of

moving on plans that had virtually no review outside district

headquarters, the board did exactly that again. Even when a board

critic spotted an error in figures district staff used as its basis

for eliminating a particular job, the board approved including the

amendment, but approved the staff’s proposal, apparently seeing no

point in perhaps inviting more people to look closer.

Maybe the depths of the board’s cluelessness was best demonstrated

by board member Elena Hubbell when, during her failed reelection bid

last month, she responded to a question at a forum. Asked about

complaints that the public, teachers and others are denied access and

input before the board renders major decisions, Hubbell disputed the

claim. She said she was frustrated because, “I attend a lot of

functions and I have a lot of communications with parents.”

People are upset board members build consensus on decisions when

they talk privately or in closed meetings. Staff reports are released

literally minutes before they are cursorily discussed and voted on.

And significant decisions with sweeping impact on students, teachers,

school staff and parents are made, but at no point in the process are

students, teachers, school staff and parents asked to consider the

proposal and offer suggestions or support. And Hubbell is frustrated

that going to “Open House Night,” PTA meetings and attending high

school football games doesn’t erase the concerns.

Proposing a solution for what she hoped would be her next term,

Hubbell told the forum audience, “Probably the most obvious thing

[for board members] to do is just open up the communications and

visit as many other places as we possibly can.” Ultimately, voters

showed Hubbell what was really the “most obvious” thing to do.

When the board looked at the list of almost 226 potential layoffs,

there was valid talk about the pain, and the role the state’s budget

crisis has played in making such discussions necessary. But that’s

where it stopped. For example, with the plan showing the potential

for laying off three school nurses, no one explained -- and no board

member asked -- “So how many nurses would that leave?”

Board member Trish Burnett came close, wondering aloud what

programs will die as a result of laying off English teachers. But no

one offered or pressed for an answer. The same attitude of not

wanting to fuss with details carried through every category, from

science teachers to school counselors. Maybe we’re supposed to be

impressed district administrators making up the list proposed

sacrificing 11 district administrators. But again, no one explained

or asked what share of the total that 11 represents. Moreover, if

only as a symbolic gesture, Glendale’s district put every district

administrator on its layoff notice list. If budget nightmares finally

come true, Glendale has the alternative of laying off more

administrators before teachers. But in Burbank, the staff put a cap

on the losses it could suffer.

Executive staffers presenting the proposal reported up front the

list was created by district staff “with input from principals.” No

board member asked what form that “input” took, so I had to ask a few

principals what role they played. No one wanted to be quoted, but the

consensus was that district staff announced it had compiled a list to

accomplish certain savings, and asked principals to do the same. The

principals made up their lists without seeing the staff’s, and the

paperwork all disappeared into district headquarters. To this day,

the principals I spoke to don’t know whether their preferences led to

dozens of changes in the staff’s plan, or none. That’s “input,”

BUSD-style.

What about the preferences of parents? Would they like to see

school nurses kept on, and to see more school psychologists let go?

And how about teachers? Do they see value in helping maintain small

class sizes in elementary grades by shifting more of the potential

layoffs to higher grades? I don’t know, and neither do the board or

district staff, because no one asked.

During last year’s budget crisis, officials couldn’t push the

review and decision process to the vaunted Budget Advisory Committee

fast enough. So, surely this year the district’s plan was run by the

same committee for comments before it was presented to the school

board, right? Nope.

Of course, we elect board members to weigh decisions, not the PTA,

or teachers or committees. So maybe they’re the only ones who can go

over the list with a fine-tooth comb and ask the tough questions on

our behalf. But they didn’t. They wrung their hands and lamented

irresponsible state legislators. Then they again unanimously approved

a proposal about which they knew little, and understood even less.

And it seems they think this time there will be a different result.

* WILL ROGERS’ column appears in every edition of the Leader. He

can be reached 24 hours a day at 637-3200, voice mail ext. 906, or by

e-mail at will.rogers@latimes.com or willrogersemail@earthlink.net.


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