BY GARY WALKER
A group of Westchester High School students have initiated a petition drive asking Los Angeles Unified School District board member Marlene Canter to rescind her April 14th vote that authorized laying off more than 5,000 school employees.
The student action, which occurred on Monday, April 27th, comes on the heels of the school board's 4-3 vote two weeks earlier to authorize cutting 5,300 teaching and administrative positions as the district looks for ways to reduce its $718 million budget deficit.
Canter, who represents Westchester in District 4, voted with the majority.
The solicitation was circulated among the student body and school personnel outside the high school's cafeteria.
"We are students from Westchester High School and are deeply concerned that you voted to raise class sizes and lay off 5,300 school employees, over half of whom will be teachers. We urge you to reconsider your decision and stand on the side of students and our education by reversing your vote," the petition states.
"California is already at the bottom of per pupil spending - 47th out of 50 states. As you prepare to leave the school board in July, we hope that your legacy is not stained by a decision that will harm so many students."
Westchester High will lose five teachers if the board approves the current layoff plan in June, while other schools around the district could lose as many as 40.
Jackie Hill, 17, is the senior class president at the high school and was among the students at a sign up station outside the cafeteria who were explaining their reasons for initiating the petition drive.
The senior heard about the student action in history class from her teacher, Andrew Terranova.
"When Mr. Terranova told us about (the petition drive), I thought that was a good way to ask Marlene Canter to reconsider her vote," she said. "This vote is affecting our teachers as well as the students."
Senior Kassandra Walters, 18, said that the proposed budget cuts could leave lasting consequences on students in the school district.
"Even though I'm graduating this year, I wanted to do something that could help students that are still going to be here," she said.
Terranova praised his students for taking an active stance regarding the possible cutbacks in teacher positions.
"These are very committed, very active students, and they are exactly the kind of students that as a teacher, I love to see," he said. "They are trying to impact change instead of just talking about it."
Canter, who did not seek reelection this year and will step down in June, indicated that the board faced some very difficult choices.
"Our current budget crisis in California has produced the worst cuts in education that I have ever seen," Canter responded in an e-mail. "Despite our use of the federal stimulus dollars to save over 3,000 jobs, more cuts and layoffs are needed.
"Without additional help, I cannot rescind my vote. We have no other options."
The board member was referring to funding that LAUSD will receive from the federal government via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which includes domestic spending for schools. It will provide $44.5 billion to local schools to prevent layoffs and cutbacks to educators.
LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines acknowledged that reductions in school staffing levels could take place in June, as well as in future years.
"We must anticipate the possibility of being required to engage in further budget reductions in May or June, as well as over the next three years," the superintendent said in a statement on April 27th, the same day that the petition was circulated. "Even with the personnel reductions that the board approved on April 14th, the budgets for 2009-10 and 2010-11 are out of balance by $182.3 million.
"In addition, as staff discussed in the (April 14th) budget presentation, there is substantial risk that the district will be faced with a larger deficit of the 2009-2010 school year if the ballot measures on the statewide special election of May 19th fail, or should state revenues continue to decline."
The ballot measures that Cortines referenced would restore $9.3 billion in school cuts in 2011 if the electorate approves them.
Lisa Adler, coordinator of Voices of Students Taking Action, an after-school organization of Westchester High students to which many who were leading the petition drive belong, was pleased to see how organized the students were and noted that it was largely their idea to gather signatures from their peers.
"This action was part of a broader meeting that we had, and our Westchester student leaders came up with the idea to ask Canter to rescind her vote," Adler, who works as an organizer for the Labor/Community Strategy Center, explained. "It's really wonderful that so many students were engaged in an action that not only affects them, but that will impact other schools much harder."
Cortines says that LAUSD officials are still looking at various avenues to keep any reduction of educators to a minimum, but United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents the vast majority of educators in the district, must also do its part.
"Our door is still open to the unions to help us save jobs. We are still open to discussing freezing automatic raises, salary cuts, furlough days, and rolling out a universal ‘thin contract' that provides more flexibility," he said. "However, until I receive from our bargaining units a viable multi-year strategy that ensures we are fiscally responsible, I will not frontload more stabilization funding in the 2009-2010 budget."
Canter appeared to agree with Cortines on the importance of UTLA accepting certain concessions during the budget negotiations.
"We continue to have conversations with all our unions in the hopes that they will help to prevent these layoffs by agreeing to solutions like employee contributions to healthcare, furlough days or even pay cuts," she stated.
Walters and Hill had similar responses when asked what they would tell Canter if they had the opportunity.
"I would ask her to reconsider her vote, and think about how it will affect everyone," said Walters.
"I would say, ‘This vote of yours will affect thousands of students and teachers, as well as your legacy,'" Hill added.
Terranova, who watched the signature gathering from a distance, expressed his pride in the youths.
"To me, as a teacher who has had so many of them in my classroom, this is very inspiring," he said.