MUSD Rescinds Remaining Teacher Pink Slips

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

MONTEBELLO– Montebello Unified School District officials announced last week they were rescinding layoffs for the remaining 100 teachers who received a reduction-in-force notice.

The announcement comes on the heels of the district rescinding 233 teacher RIF notices. Last month, 333 teachers and a number of administrators and classified staff received pink slips in an attempt to close a $17 million budget gap.

Layoff notices sent out to administrators and classified staff, have yet to be rescinded.

The district has been working with the Los Angeles County Office of Education to keep teachers employed.

“They need to know from the onset, this district was looking for ways to keep them on the job,” MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy said in a statement.

To Get Out of the Red, City Considers Raising Taxes

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

MONTEBELLO – With no assets to sell or a voter-approved utility rate increase to generate more money, Montebello officials are now scrambling to figure out how to avoid a $5.6 million budget shortfall. Among the items under consideration: a possible sales tax increase.

“Certain [past] fixes have been Band-Aid(s),” said Mayor Vivian Romero last week during a presentation on a draft of the city’s budget. She was referring to past actions to balance Montebello’s budget, at least temporarily.

“We need to look at long term solutions,” Romero said.

Montebello has struggled to find it’s footing ever since California’s 425 redevelopment agencies (RDAs) were dissolved in 2012, taking away a pool of money cities depended on to encourage economic development that would in turn increase funds for city services.

Since dismantling its RDA, Montebello has had a tough time keeping its budget in the black – despite an increase in other revenue – at times turning to the sale of city-owned properties to generate one-time funds.

With those options maxed out, city officials are now eyeing as possible remedies increasing the sales tax, implementing a utility user tax and hiking fees for city services.

Montebello’s Fiscal Stimulus Ad Hoc Committee, created in 2016 specifically to come up with ideas for raising city revenue, presented the three options during the April 12 city council meeting.

While tax increases and fee hikes are generally unpopular, Montebello resident and employee Cecilia Lopez supports increasing taxes as a solution to the city’s financial crisis, which could result in a $5.6 million budget shortfall in 2017-2018 if no new money is found or costs cut. The shortfall include $1.7 million to fund city-owned operations such as the golf course and water system.

“Let’s invest in long term solutions,” Lopez urged the council during the meeting.

The city projects revenue of $54.2 million for 2017-2018, but ongoing costs for police and fire, parks and recreation, street maintenance and other city services are expected to hit nearly $60 million.

“This is just the cost to operate at the very minimum,” emphasized Councilman Art Barajas.

The ad hoc committee –made up of Romero, Councilwoman Vanessa Delgado, department heads and representatives from the city’s bargaining units ¬¬– estimates a 1-cent hike in the sales tax would generate $9.5 million a year in new money, more than enough to cover the projected deficit.

If approved, Montebello’s sales tax would jump to 10.5 percent, after adding in the voter approved quarter-cent tax hike for countywide transportation improvements and a quarter-cent increase to combat homelessness, which both go into effect July 1.

Voters in Pico Rivera and Commerce have approved similar tax increases to fund long overdue infrastructure repairs and other services. According the city, a 1-cent increase could produce as much as $190 million for Montebello over the next 20 years.

“When we visit those cities [and spend money] we are helping them, why not help ourselves?” said Montebello City Employees Association member Delia Delgado, who like Lopez supports a sales tax increase.

Montebello officials said last week they would consider studying city fees to determine if they are in line with those in other cities. Ad hoc committee members believe such a study would conclude fees should go up, and estimate a 10 percent hike on permits, plan checks, fines and penalties would bring in another $690,000 a year.

The city previously estimated taxing utilities would generate $5 million in added revenue.

Neighboring cities have both a utility tax and higher sales tax, pointed out Councilman Jack Hadjinian, who favors an increase.

The soonest the city could put a sales tax hike measure before voters would be November 2018, unless the city council opts to declare a fiscal emergency and pay for a special election. Waiting until 2018 would not solve the city’s immediate financial issues.

Councilman Bill Molinari is against any emergency declaration. Last year, he successfully stopped the council from putting a tax hike measure on the ballot, saying such a move would put the city’s credit rating for bonds at risk. Molinari prefers to look into adopting a utility tax and updating the city’s fee schedule as a way out of Montebello’s financial crunch.

Councilwoman Delgado, who last year proposed the sales tax hike, now says she understands why the measure did not move forward and why residents voted against raising water rates, which would have generated millions of dollars in added revenue.

“We need to build trust,” she told her colleagues, implying residents do not trust the council to use the money wisely or as intended.

The ad hoc committee suggests forming an advisory committee that would recommend to the city council how any additional sales tax revenue should be spent.

The bottom line is the structural deficit will only get worse without action, Barajas said.

‘We’re going to deal with it this year or the following year,” he argued. “This [deficit] is very real; it’s not going away on its own.”

A representative of the city’s transit union, Albert Rivers, said he is tired of hearing about the “transformation” taking place in Pico Rivera due to the added sales tax revenue.

“I’m tired of them saying, ‘look at Pico [Rivera],’” he said. “It’s time they say, ‘look at Montebello.’”

 

Vietnam Memorial Wall On View in Montebello

April 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

While most walls are meant to keep people out, The Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall aspires to bring people together.

A half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. will be on display for public viewing at Montebello City Park starting today and closing on April 17.

Etched with the names of over 58,300 men and women who were killed or went missing in action while serving in the Vietnam War, the Palmdale-based mobile wall aims to pay tribute to those who not only served, but were also mistreated when they returned home from the widely unpopular war.

“Montebello is a very patriotic city, there’s a lot of veterans that live in Montebello or the surrounding areas,” said Commander Max Avalos of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 22, the group that spent two years working to bring the Wall to the city for the first time,

According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial database, six of the names on the wall belong to men from Montebello.

The memorial presentation will feature an opening day ceremony Friday at 5 p.m., along with the nightly playing of Taps, a bugle call played during flag ceremonies and military funerals.

“Out motto is to ‘keep the promise,’” explained Avalos. “The promise evolved from our country’s failure to recognize Vietnam veterans when they returned.”

(THE AV Wall)

(THE AV Wall)

Avalos recalls there was a lot of animosity toward veterans during and after the Vietnam War. Back then, he said, you didn’t see the celebrations you see now for soldiers returning from war.

“You have to have lived through the 60s to understand the public was not happy” with what went on in Vietnam, and veterans paid the price for that anger, Avalos recalled. “Once the war was over, veterans were forgotten.”

Many of the soldiers who survived are today still feeling the impact of the war, according to Avalos. Whether it’s from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or long-term illnesses associated with Agent Orange, a chemical used by the U.S. military during Vietnam jungle warfare that led to a higher number of cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and various other forms of cancer in veterans, they are still suffering the consequences of their service, he said.

Steve Willis with The Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall project said they will have staff on hand to help people locate the names of loved ones on the Memorial Wall. Gold Star families, those with relatives whose names are on the Wall, will also be recognized.

“Our mission is educate the younger generation about what happened” during the Vietnam War and after, said Willis.

(The AV Wall)

(The AV Wall)

Willis says emotions often come to the surface during these events, at times compelling people to share their stories. Others choose to commemorate their visit with a keepsake rubbing of a name on the Wall.

The nightly playing of Taps is a way to honor the fallen veterans, says Avalos. “It symbolizes that even in the darkness we’ll still see you the next day,” he said.

“We must never forget we lost over 58,000 young Americans” in the war, he stressed.

The Point Man Antelope Valley (PMAV), a nonprofit veterans outreach organization, raised funds to build the replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall – known as the AV Wall – after finding it difficult to get a replica to Palmdale for viewing. The AV Wall is now one of five mobile Walls in the country and the only one traveling on the west coast. It is the most accurate replica, according to Willis.

(The AV Wall)

(The AV Wall)

“It’s such a simple thing, but it’s a great honor for veterans,” he told EGP.

Willis explained the Wall allows people to put aside things that may divide them, as do literal walls.

“[The Wall] spans race, culture, languages and everything else across the board,” Willis said, referring to the people who make the journey to see the memorial.

“They’re not this, that or the other, they are people that share a common grief.”

MUSD Revokes Layoff Notices; Recall Moves Forward

April 12, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

With CBO Gone, Teachers Thinks Montebello Unified Budget Can Improve

April 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Now that the Montebello Unified School Board has fired its controversial chief business officer, employees are hopeful a clearer, more positive picture of district’s finances will soon emerge.

MUSD board members terminated Ruben Rojas last week following months of protests by employees and the public. They blamed Rojas for the district’s dire financial situation that led to 333 MUSD employees being laid off.

With 235 of 333 jobs in jeopardy belonging to teachers, the Montebello Teachers Association (MTA) has the most at stake. MTA and other district unions, and MUSD officials are now scrambling to find alternatives to job cuts for closing a $17 million budget gap, but they could be running out of time.

MTA President Lorraine Richards told EGP the school district must reduce spending in other areas before it lays off employees. She is especially critical of the millions of dollars spent on consultants, complaining that the expenditures have continued to increase over the years.

She’s not alone; it’s a sentiment repeatedly voiced by students, parents and classified employees.

“When you have a budget showing an increase for consultants of course you’ll see a red line at the bottom,” Richards said.

An MUSD employee discusses the impact cuts will have on students during a special meeting March 30. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

An MUSD employee discusses the impact cuts will have on students during a special meeting March 30. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Department of Education (LACOE) informed Montebello Unified officials the district is at risk of not meeting its financial obligations for the next two school years unless it takes decisive action to turn things around. To the dismay of the public, MUSD officials ultimately chose staffing cuts as the vehicle to financial solvency.

Under the latest fiscal stabilization plan, MUSD plans to shore up its finances by eliminating positions, implementing furlough days, freezing pay raises and not replacing retirees.

The biggest hit will be to teaching positions, with an estimated $12 million in layoffs.

Administrative positions will be trimmed by $2.9 million; an additional $1.9 million in revenues will be saved through cuts to non-classroom employees.

According to Richards, MTA has been studying the budget and their research has led them to other areas where revenue can be saved. In some cases, she argues, much of what is budgeted for is in fact not spent.

For example, according to the latest budget summary, the cost for books and supplies has decreased by $6 million since the first interim report, based on an analysis of expenditure patterns, was released. That excess funding, however, will be used for capital expenditures associated with the district’s technology initiative.

Richards hopes the district will consider offsetting general fund expenses with incoming bond revenue, to avoid personnel cuts.

She proposes dipping into the school district’s rainy day reserve fund as another possible way to close the budget gap.

Under state law, however, school districts are required to set aside at least 3 percent of yearly revenue in a reserve fund, and according to LACOE, it’s an obligation the district is already in danger of not meeting.

Richards and others don’t believe MUSD’s finances are as dire as reported by the now fired Rojas.

“A budget can be created to show what you want to show,” she says, skeptical of the financial crisis being painted.

If the situation is as bad as they say, she wants to know why district officials pushed last year for voters to approve a $300 million spending bond. Rojas cited a “sparkling [outside financial credit] report” to move the bond forward, she recalls.

Lloyd Garrison, president of CSEA Chapter 500, the union that represents non-classified employees like plumbers, office clerks and maintenance workers, echoes those sentiment, telling EGP the picture of a tenuous budget was not the one presented last year.

“If we were in such dire trouble why wasn’t that brought up during union negotiations,” he questions. “Why would the board approve raises?”

Last year, after drawn out negotiations, the district agreed to award teachers a two-year pay raise and a one-time bonus. At that time, CSEA members agreed to a one-time bonus.

Richards told EGP she believes the budget crisis was not brought up then because it did not exist.

With Rojas gone and a state audit on the way, but could take 6 months or longer to complete, Richards and Garrison said they expect a more accurate accounting of district finances is forthcoming: not one “covered with Ruben Rojas’ finger prints on it.”

In the meantime, the district’s Fiscal Stabilization Ad Hoc Committee, made up of Board Members Hector Chacon and Edgar Cisneros, representative of MTA, CSEA, the Association of Montebello School Administrators (AMSA), Interim Superintendent Dr. Anthony Martinez and Director of Administrative Services Dr. Angel Gallardo, are working on identifying other areas where money can be saved or reallocated.

MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy said in a written statement that the committee is focusing on “minimizing the number of teachers and support staff impacted by the recent reduction in force.”

 

 

 

Montebello Unified Fires Chief Business Exec

March 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It had been a while since cheers of praise were heard during a Montebello Unified School District board meeting, but on Thursday, teachers, parents and students were on their feet celebrating  news that a controversial top administrator had been fired.

Getting the axe is Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas who at one point was on administrative leave over questions regarding the truthfulness of information in his resume and job application, which have since proven to be full of false statements and made-up references.

The firing comes months after unions representing MUSD employees and the public began calling for an investigation into Rojas’ hiring.

Rojas’ detractors also blamed him for MUSD’s tenuous budget situation, saying he had presented a false rosy picture of the school District’s financial outlook, and alleged he had improperly awarded District contracts.

Board members had come under fire for their failure to act swiftly and openly on the matter. They were criticized for not fully vetting Rojas before he was hired.

Board members Hector Chacon and Edgar Cisneros presented the motion to terminate Rojas during a closed session meeting Thursday: the vote was 5-0 to approve.

“The composition and direction of the Board member has been continuously evolving over the past year and with that evolution, comes a set of new priorities,” said Board Member Ben Cardenas in a statement explaining the Board’s decision.

“Given the vision of the board and challenges facing our district, it’s evident that we need to go in a different direction with respect to our business office…”

The news was announced during the special board meeting later that evening, prompting loud applause from a stunned, but pleasantly surprised audience.

“You have finally listened to us,” Lu Cruz told the board during public comment. “You have finally seen reason, thank you.”

While many MUSD employees and parents called the firing of the Rojas a “good first step,” others felt it’s too little, too late.

Over the last two months, chants of “no mas Rojas” (no more Rojas) could be heard during protests outside district headquarters, where teachers, staff, students and others loudly expressed anger over the board’s failure to fire Rojas while hundreds of employees were losing their jobs due to MUSD’s deep budget hole.

It was less than a year ago that the public seemed to have little reason not to trust Rojas, who at the time pushed for approval of Measure GS, a $300 million bond for infrastructure improvements. Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond in June 2016, but by September 2016, the feelings of goodwill were gone and Rojas was put on paid administrative leave over a personnel issue related to discrepancies in his resume, only to be reinstated one month later.

 

 

Former MUSD Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas presents a budget update to the board during a meeting earlier this year. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Former MUSD Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas presents a budget update to the board during a meeting earlier this year. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The California School Employees Association (CSEA) Montebello Chapter 505 passed a “vote of no confidence” in Rojas the following month, accusing him of hiring acquaintances, lowering morale district-wide and pushing costly contracts.

The lack of action by the board to fire Rojas and impending layoffs prompted a recall effort against Cardenas and Board President Lani Cupchoy.

Ultimately, 333 MUSD employees received layoff notices as part of the district’s plan to address a $17 million budget deficit. Two-thirds of those cuts were to teachers.

“If the pink slips are rescinded there will be a sigh of relief, but some of the damage will not be undone,” said Shaun Kury, band director at Montebello High School. He is among those who have has received a layoff notice.

The board voted Thursday to give MUSD Superintendent Dr. Anthony Martinez the authority to rescind layoff notices as the budget allows, signaling their willingness to reconsider some of the job cuts in their budget stabilizing plan.

“If we don’t start rescinding [soon], another district is going to steal our talent,” said Chacon, emphasizing the need for urgency.

CSEA Lloyd Garrison told EGP he was very happy with the board’s recent decisions.

“The board wants to move forward,” he said. “By Ruben leaving the district [MUSD] will have a new beginning.”

 

Man Found Dead in Montebello Church Parking Lot

March 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Authorities Tuesday were investigating the shooting death of a man in Montebello.

The man was pronounced dead at the scene in the 800 block of Garfield Avenue near the Pomona (60) Freeway at 8:56 p.m. Monday by the Montebello Fire Department, said Deputy Kimberly Alexander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which is assisting Montebello police in the investigation.

Responding officers were directed to the parking lot of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, where they discovered the man unresponsive in a vehicle that had been in a slight collision in the lot, according to Alexander and reports from the scene.

The victim was slumped over with numerous gunshot wounds to the upper body, Alexander said. His name was withheld, pending notification of his relatives.

Witnesses told NBC4 it was their vehicle that the man crashed into and when they looked inside, it appeared the man had been shot. Another witness told the station that he heard at least three gunshots.

A description of the shooter was not available.

Pedestrian Struck in Montebello

March 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A pedestrian was struck by a commercial vehicle Tuesday in Montebello and hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, police said.

The accident occurred at Garfield Avenue and Whittier Boulevard early this afternoon, the Montebello Police Department reported.

The person, whose name and age were not immediately released, was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Traffic was routed away from the area while an investigation was conducted.

Bicyclist Killed in Montebello Identified

March 10, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Authorities last week identified a bicyclist killed in Montebello in a collision with an SUV, whose driver was arrested after allegedly leaving the scene.

The crash occurred on Feb. 18 about 7:30 p.m. as the cyclist was southbound on Concourse Avenue past Allston Street. Jeffrey Corden, 35, of Los Angeles died at the scene, the coroner’s office reported March 2.

Officers learned that Corden had been rear-ended by a 2002 Ford Expedition, the California Highway Patrol reported.

The motorist sped away, but crashed into several parked vehicles a few blocks away. John F. Salvidar, 35, of Montebello, was detained by some local residents until CHP officers arrived at the scene and arrested him.

Neither alcohol nor drugs were factors in the crash, the CHP reported.

The CHP’s East Los Angeles area office asked anyone who saw the crash to call (323) 980-4600.

Montebello Unified Approves Deep Job Cuts

February 23, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

Nearly 500 Montebello Unified School District employees will receive pink slips as part of plan to deal with the district’s multi-million dollar budget deficit.

Under intense pressure from workers and the public, the Montebello Unified school board earlier in the month postponed voting on a recommendation to cut 319 jobs, saying they wanted more time to look for other solutions to the district’s looming financial crisis. The decision to cut even more positions left many questioning why in less than two weeks the number of jobs slated for cuts grew by nearly 150.

“Looks like soon we’ll all be getting laid off,” said a disappointed Lisa Dominguez following the board’s vote at its Feb. 16 meeting.

Although Dominguez’s job title is not listed on the approved resolutions, as a longtime senior office assistant and member of the California State Employees Association, she knows many of the classified employees who could find themselves without a job come fall.

Montebello Unified is under intense pressure to close an estimated $17 million budget deficit or risk the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) sending in someone to oversee district finances.

The Montebello Unified School Board voted to approved districtwide layoffs and reductions during the Feb. 16 meeting. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The Montebello Unified School Board voted to approved districtwide layoffs and reductions during the Feb. 16 meeting. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

For nearly three hours, speakers pleaded with school board members to save their jobs, but in the end the board voted 4-1 to approve laying off classified and non-classified employees ­­– including plumbers, attendance technicians, custodians and administrators on special assignment.

Tom Callison, a district carpenter, said he was not surprised by the board’s decision, but was dis-appointed in the way they handled the situation.

“I thought they should have at least apologized for what they had to do,” Callison complained.

The board’s action met LACOE’s Feb. 17 deadline to submit a fiscal stabilization plan and the ap-proval of corresponding resolutions, while at the same time complying with its March 15 deadline to notify impacted employees as required in bargaining unit agreements.

“Because of the actions you’re taking tonight we no longer feel it necessary to put a fiscal advisor” at the district, said LACOE’s Chief Financial Officer Dr. Scott Price.

Price said their team of fiscal experts would still provide the district with advice, but would not have the same powers as a fiscal advisor to rescind district decisions.

MUSD employees on the other hand were not as impressed.

“Recall” was heard soon after the gavel hit making the layoffs official.

CSEA Chapter 505 President Lloyd Garrison told union members to not give up hope that every job would be saved.

Employees do not plan to wait until the November election to fight back, Garrison told EGP.

“We don’t want to give them 8 months,” he said. “Our goal is to get at least one [board member] out as an example, we just don’t know who that will be.”

Marisol Rivera, a school secretary and CSEA regional representative said employees plan to take their outrage to their neighbors.

“We need to make those phone calls and knock on doors to let them know what is going on in their backyard,” she said.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

In the meantime, employees say they welcome the county and state looking into district finances. They hope they will uncover alleged financial discrepancies and to oust Chief Financial Officer Ruben Rojas, who they claim falsified information on his resume and job application.

Board Member Hector Chacon, the lone vote against the cuts is up for reelection in November. He too blames Rojas for the district’s current financial woes.

“There should only be one layoff,” Chacon said, referring to Rojas.

For many employees, their last hope is Superintendent Anthony J. Martinez, who they have been calling on to “do the right thing” and to put Rojas on leave while accusations against him are investigated.

“Why not take the time … if the allegations are not true, provide that proof to the public,” Callison said.

Chacon said he does not trust the budget presented by Rojas, especially since the deficit grew from $15 million at the last school board meeting to $17 million now.

Price said such increases aren’t unusual, explaining that earlier numbers were based on what the district expected to receive before the governor released his annual budget.

CSEA Labor Relations Representative Simon Rea called out Rojas for his contradictory statements over the severity of the district’s financial situation.

“It doesn’t add up,” he said.

Citing a previous article by Eastern Group Publications [publisher of this newspaper], Rea read a statement by Rojas highlighting the “strong fiscal management of the district” that has resulted in Montebello Unified’s $100 million voter-approved school bond receiving a AAA rating from the Fitch Ratings Agency.

Board Member Ben Cardenas stressed the board made a sincere attempt to avoid layoffs and to buy a little more time.

“Given the current timeline we came up with fiscal scenarios to ensure we minimized layoffs, especially in the classroom,” Cardenas said.

With the help of the county’s fiscal experts, he said they might be able to rescind many of the pink slips going out by the end of the fiscal year.

By approving the layoffs, there’s less urgency to save jobs, countered Chacon.

Raphael Ramirez, one of four plumbers in the district and number 29 on the list of layoffs, warned the board that cutting their jobs will have a major impact on students.

“Nobody thinks about how water comes out of the faucet, until it doesn’t,” he said.

Update: Feb. 24, 2017 10:45 a.m. clarified original statement that Lisa Dominguez’ job was not in jeopardy.

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