MONTEBELLO – Following months of protests from students, parents and teachers, the Montebello Unified School Board unanimously voted to rescind layoff notices for 233 of its employees.
The action was approved April 6, after board members determined the district was closer to closing a $17 million budget gap.
While over two-thirds of the 333 teachers, administrators and classified staff who received pink slips can now count on keeping their jobs for the 2017-2018 school year, 100 employees who received a second layoff notice late last month are still in danger of being cut.
Meanwhile, activists seeking to recall MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy and Board Member Benjamin Cardenas last week received approval from the County Registrar Recorder/County Clerk’s Office to begin collecting signatures on recall petitions. They blame the board members for the school district’s financial problems.
Cuts to teaching positions were supposed to be minimal, so when news broke last week that 235 Montebello Unified teachers had received layoff notices it sent shock waves through the school community, prompting students, parents, alumni and other school employees to take to the street in protest.
The cuts will have a devastating impact on the quality of education students receive, said protesters at campuses across the district last Thursday.
They demanded the school board explain its 11th hour decision to change its plan to shore up a $17 million budget deficit from one that would have seen the layoff of nearly 500 mostly non-teaching positions, to one that now calls for over two-thirds of the layoffs being teachers.
News of the cuts spread quickly on social media, in some cases postings listed names of teachers being laid off, encouraging the community to protest the cuts.
A petition to save the 235 teaching jobs is currently circulating and will be presented to the MUSD board at their next meeting April 6 and to the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). As of Wednesday, the change.org petition had received over 2,200 signatures.
“As a student of a MUSD school, I see how full the classes already are with some having more than 40 students, and can only imagine how much fuller the classes will get with this cut,” wrote Angelo Carrasco, the Bell Gardens High School student who authored the petition.
Under pressure to quickly get district finances in order or risk county education officials sending in someone to oversee their decisions, MUSD board members last month voted 4-1 to layoff close to 500 classified and non-classified employees — including plumbers, attendance technicians, custodians and administrators on special assignment. It was a jump from about 317 positions on the chopping block less than two weeks earlier.
That number of layoffs has dropped to 333, but most of the cuts are now to teachers of English, social sciences, art, music, physical education and health. Layoff notices, often referred to as pink slips, were delivered to impacted teachers on March 15, the deadline for MUSD to notify employees of an impending job loss as required under agreements with its bargaining units.
In a statement, the current board blamed previous boards and administrators for MUSD being “on the edge of insolvency if drastic action is not taken.”
“Consequently, the current Board has had to work with staff to minimize the impact to our employees and to ensure the District remains solvent.”
The last minute decision sparked anger across MUSD, which has schools in Montebello, Bell Gardens, Commerce and a small number of campuses in other cities.
Hundreds of students walked out of Bell Gardens High School the next day, including 17-year-old Ceshia Palos Castellanos.
“These teachers are the foundation of our future,” she said. “I want to go to college and I’m scared this will hurt my chances.”
About a dozen teachers at Bell Gardens High have received layoff notices, including the school’s beloved band director and the only teacher of the Advance Placement Comparative Government course. These are our mentors, role models, students lamented.
MUSD representative Ricardo Mendez told students layoffs were based on the district’s overall needs and program objectives, not an individual teacher’s performance.
Many teachers noted the pathway programs and the Applied Technology Center were left untouched. Cuts were not based on seniority, a change from past staffing cuts, when it was usually “the last person hired is the first person fired.”
“They are taking away the few aspects of this school that make it worthwhile,” Castellanos’ mother Victoria told EGP in Spanish. “Soon they will only offer the bare minimum,” she complained, not satisfied with Mendez’ effort to reassure the group.
At some schools, nearly half of all teachers received a pink slip, leaving many to wonder what the impact to student-teacher ratio will be.
“They won’t be able to run a school … let alone a district” with this many cuts, said Christine Alcala-Snee, who’s been laid off after 13 years with MUSD.
In neighboring Commerce, about a dozen students from Rosewood Park School held their own protest.
Holding signs and chanting, “Students and teachers here to fight, education is our right,” students said they want to keep their favorite AVID teacher from being laid off.
For young activists like Zoe Garate, 13, someone has to step up to make sure teachers aren’t cut.
“Can’t the city do something? Don’t they have a lot of money?” she asked, referring to the many programs Commerce provides residents at little or no cost.
Amber Cabreros, 13, told EGP she and her classmates wanted to show just how much their education and teachers matter to them. “They respect us for who we are and show us how far we can go,” she said.
Later that afternoon in Montebello, alumni and parents marched with former teachers from the Montebello Teachers Association headquarters to the district office, hoping to “put a face on” the cuts.
“They pushed us to do more, mentored us as we applied for college and kept us out of trouble,” remarked Erendira Zamudio, who graduated from Schurr last year.
Former Montebello High School student presidents Christopher Jimenez and Jennifer Gutierrez regularly attended school board meetings and were shocked to learn of the district’s current financial mess. They blame the board members they once looked up to for not getting help sooner.
“This could have been prevented,” said Gutierrez. “That is why we need more transparency.”
These kinds of cuts violate student rights, according to 2nd grade teacher Patricia Meneses, a 17-year district veteran on the verge of losing her job.
“We set the foundation, and what happens when you break the foundation, the house comes down,” she said.
Maria Navarette has two children at Winter Gardens Elementary in East Los Angeles. She told EGP that district officials must realize that parents see the cuts as an attack on their children.
“These are the people who take care of our children from 8 to 3 and who we entrust with their education,” she said in Spanish. “They are the ones that make it possible for our children to obtain a better future.”
Sporting navy blue shirts and wearing “Union Strong” buttons, over 150 teachers, counselors, nurses and other certified personnel of the Montebello Unified School District took to the streets last week to protest what amounts to a short-term, one-time pay bump proposed by the District during union negotiations.
“The district knows there’s money, they just don’t want to spend it,” said Lorraine Richards president of the Montebello Teachers Association, angry that the District has refused to raise employee pay long-term.
“The S-word is going around, we hope it doesn’t get to that point,” added David Navar, MTA’s bargaining chairperson.
Lea este artículo en Español: Negociaciones del Sindicato de MUSD Están Estancadas
Despite a light drizzle in the air, members of MTA – which represents 1,400 certified district employees – rallied at Montebello Park before marching the three blocks to Montebello Unified headquarters where the April 7 school board meeting was about to take place.
“The district can’t say they are putting students first if they are putting teachers last,” Richards told EGP.
For the first time in over two decades, District officials and MTA have been unable to reach a contract agreement. A state mediator has been called in to try to break the impasse, with the first meeting scheduled to take place yesterday. There was no word on the negotiations as of EGP’s press time Wednesday.
At issue is Montebello Unified’s offer to raise employee pay 2.3 percent retroactive to the start of the current school year. The union balked at the offer and instead wants an ongoing, 8.1 percent pay increase to their salary. Montebello Unified can afford the pay hike, say union representatives.
Although enrollment is on the decline, Montebello Unified is expected to receive more revenue due the state’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula, which gives more money to school districts with large numbers of English learners, foster youth and low-income students to try to narrow the achievement gap among these students.
Union employees received a 5 percent pay hike in 2013-2014 followed by an additional 4.5 percent hike in 2014-2015. Under the District’s latest offer, teachers and other certified personnel would receive a one-time check to cover the proposed 2.3 percent hike for this year, but stay at the current pre-supplement level next year, Richards explained. “Without an ongoing raise that money isn’t going to be there next year,” she added.
Saying educators are the “heart” of MUSD’s mission to prepare students to be successful leaders, Superintendent Susan Contreras-Smith told EGP the District is committed to resolving the current impasse in negotiations.
“We are confidant a conclusion that supports the best interest of our students and the overall well-being of our district short-term and long-term,” Contreras-Smith said.
Many MUSD employees believe, however, that district officials are too busy campaigning for a $300 million dollar bond measure on the June 7 ballot and not focusing on taking care of staff. If approved, bond money would be used to upgrade classrooms and address infrastructure needs.
During the school board meeting, speakers demanded the District reach an agreement with the union or suffer the consequences.
“It was us, the teachers, who made the phone calls to get parents to vote for the previous bond,” Douglas Patzkowski reminded the board.
“If you want us to use our time to get votes for bonds we need to have a bond to you,” he warned board members.
Speaker after speaker reminded the board of the added burden new instruction methods, such as Common Core, is putting on teachers, who are being required to create the curriculum themselves. They reminded the board that teachers take money out of their own pockets to pay for books, holiday decorations for the classroom, and even training materials and photocopies.
“Don’t forget we do the work that makes you look good,” Margie Granado said.
Disrespect to the teachers is equivalent to disrespect to her child, said one parent.
“They take care of our children” when we’re not there, said Tiffany Sanchez. “So when it’s time to vote, we’ll remember this.”
Following meeting protocols, district officials did not directly respond to comments made by speakers or on the terms of ongoing negotiations, but instead asked speakers to be patient through the mediation process.
“This board feels very confident we are going to come up with a favorable solution,” MUSD President Ben Cardenas assured. “We understand there’s a lot of passion and we’re willing to listen, we’re just asking you to be patient.”
Hector Chacon, the longest sitting member on the school board, said he hopes a consensus is reached for the benefit of the children.
“Hopefully we reach a fair and reasonable settlement for all parties so we can move to the business of why we are here,” Chacon said.
Their assurances, however, did little to calm tensions among teachers who say they were understanding during troubling economic times, but no more.
“When there were budget cuts we took cuts,” said Alicia Ramos, a teacher at La Merced.
“Now the district has funding [but] it’s not being used to compensate the people who work directly involved with students,” she complained.
The District had no trouble giving long-term pay raises to its superintendents, MTA members reminded the board.
“Is your mortgage a one-time payment? Do you have one-time bills,” asked Granados, turning to the MTA members in the room. “If an ongoing raise is good enough for the highest paid employees, it’s good enough for us.”