Wealthy Santa Monica cutting public school budget

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Wealthy Santa Monica cutting public school budget

By Matt Schrader

Despite teacher layoffs rumored by many parents of Santa Monica public school students, the school district will not lay off teachers in the 2009 school year, although it will increase class sizes, according to members of the school board.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education members said a slight increase in class sizes would help save money without significantly changing classroom dynamics.

“We don’t think what we’re proposing will have too much of an impact on learning,” said Ben Allen, 31, a recent graduate of University of California-Berkeley Law School and the Board’s newest member.

Allen said the Board had considered layoffs earlier in the year, but decided against them before March 15 — the State’s mandated deadline for notifying teachers.

“There was a pretty energetic effort taken by a lot of parents that [laying off teachers] would be damaging,” Allen said.

Instead, the school district opted for increasing class sizes by two to three students on average — a move members said won’t impact the students hardly at all.

“Is there a huge difference? No,” Allen said. “It seems to be one of the best ways without hurting educational quality.”

“Santa Monica is in pretty good fiscal shape compared to [the Los Angeles Unified School District], but we are also going to have to make some changes,” said Miguel Marco, vice principal of Santa Monica’s Lincoln Middle School.

Some parents, however, expressed frustration over the school district’s plan.

“It’s way better [for students] when they’re in classes that are smaller,” said George Garcia, whose sixth-grade son attends Lincoln.

Said Mohammadi, 46, whose son Samosa began attending Lincoln last year when his family moved from India, said he believes the new class sizes will significantly hinder even his own son’s learning.

“If you make it a bigger class, there are more distractions,” Mohammadi said.

Samosa, now in the seventh grade and active in soccer and the student orchestra, agreed that large classes encourage shorter attention spans: “[Students] can joke [around] more in bigger classes.”

Some in Santa Monica, however, said that any budget cuts are unacceptable, and that
they draw attention to the State’s frivolous spending.

“They shouldn’t have to cut anything … Do you have any idea how much money is in Santa Monica?” said Alta Townsend, a grandmother who picks her granddaughter up on some schooldays. “It’s absolutely sickening that they’d ever run out of money.”

Allen said hard economic times were the reason SMMUSD started a reserve fund several years ago.

“I think it was up to about $20 million — ours was a little larger than it needed to be,” Allen said. “We’ve been responsible [spending money], and we’ve been careful, and we’ve worked hard.”

He refused to comment on how much of the reserve fund has been spent.

Townsend, who went to Lincoln Middle School as a child, said taxes alone should be enough to run the school district.

“They get money from Sacramento and they get even more from local taxes,” she said.

“Big classes aren’t the best but if that’s what it comes down to, then they’ve gotta do it,” said Garcia.

Still, many parents aren’t convinced that the school district’s money-saving efforts will stop after increasing class sizes.

Allen did leave the door open to layoffs later in the year, but only if it was ordered by the state government under “really extraordinary circumstances.”

“In difficult budgetary times, things can be discussed,” he said. “But it’ll be interesting to see what happens as far as the state budget goes.”

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