School district eliminates 18 jobs

La Cañada Unified school board members Tuesday approved the elimination of 18 employee positions while simultaneously outlining plans to restore them with money generated through community fundraising efforts.

With member Joel Peterson absent, the board voted 4-0 to lay off one permanent physical education teacher and to released 18 temporary teachers who collectively are filling the equivalent of 16 full-time positions.

They also did away with a classified support staff position at La Cañada High School that is currently vacant.

“These decisions aren’t made easily,” school board President Scott Tracy said.

State law mandates that districts give notice by March 15 to teachers that will not be retained for the subsequent school year.

Board members rejected the proposed elimination of two permanent elementary school teaching positions after Tracy and others expressed confidence that the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation would raise enough money to cover the costs of those employees.

District budget projections already include a $1.1 million donation from the foundation, but fundraising this year is expected to exceed that figure, Tracy said. First priority should be given to staffing and class size considerations, he emphasized.

“What I would like to propose the board to consider is if we raise $2 million … the district would be agreeable to maintain the current average class size for the next school year,” Tracy said. “In other words, that $900,000 that is not currently budgeted would be used to rehire the teachers that we are laying off and reinstate the class sizes to where we are today.”

Laying off the two elementary school teachers would have resulted in split-grade classes at both Palm Crest and Paradise Canyon elementary schools, something that La Cañada Unified has largely avoided, Supt. Wendy Sinnette said.

With their permission, the district released Tuesday the names of the employees who will receive layoff notices in order to send a message to the community about what is at stake.

“It has all been articulated to the temporary teaching staff with a strong message sent that these hard decisions are in no way based upon their merit,” Sinnette said. “They are highly valued by the district, they have brought gifts and talents to our district and … we will work with them through our processes to bring them back as the positions are available.”

La Cañada Unified officials, along with their colleagues up and down the state, have been forced to perform a complicated budget tap dance since the onset of the economic downturn in 2008. Without the passage of a tax measure in November, La Cañada stands to lose $1.8 million of a roughly $34 million operating budget next year.

The foundation has played an increasingly visible role in supporting the mission of the district amid wave after wave of state-level cuts.

During the 2010-11 school year, foundation officials raised a record $2 million, money that was used, in part, to hire teachers and keep class sizes small.

Its signature event, a gala dinner scheduled for Saturday, is almost sold out, according to President Paul Murray.

Board members said Tuesday that they supported again committing the additional foundation-raised dollars to the rehiring of teachers, but added that the community outreach piece will be important.

“I think that our parents definitely want this,” Board Member Ellen Multari said. “We want this at the elementary level, we want it at the middle school we want this at the high school. I think the challenge is going to be the messaging, because I think somehow, some of our community members got the impression that the problem was taken care of last year.”

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