By Nick Diamantides
Many people– especially parents– are worried about how the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) will continue to operate under continuing budget cutbacks. In the last approximately eight years the District has had to reduce its budget by $200 million.
Last Monday night, Felton Williams, vice president of the LBUSD Board of Education, spoke at the monthly meeting of the Wrigley Area Neighborhood Alliance at the community center of Veterans Park, where he outlined what is going on in the LBUSD. About 35 people attended the meeting.
“Our annual budget is now about $700 million,” he said. “This year we cut $57 million out of that. This is the first time in my entire tenure on the board that we have gone into the classroom cutting teachers.”
Williams noted that 800 teachers have been laid off this year, but the LBUSD hopes to rehire some of them. He explained that recently the District negotiated a new contract with the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB), allowing the District to have five furlough days during each school year. “That will enable us to bring a couple hundred (laid-off) teachers back,” he said, adding that scheduled retirements will also enable the District to rehire some teachers.
Williams, however, lamented the fact that many of the laid-off teachers are newly educated, highly performing teachers, but the LBUSD’s contract with TALB is based on seniority. “We have to honor the seniority contract,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of flexibility to walk around the contract.”
Williams added that some things are helping the LBUSD ease its budget problems. “One is the flexibility we are now getting from the state,” he said. “We are working very hard to ask them for permission to use categorical money.” He explained that categorical funds are moneys that are designated for specialized programs. “We have a number of categorical pots of money that can only be spent on specific programs,” he said. “We have asked the state for permission to be able to utilize that money to keep our teachers.” He explained that sometimes at the end of a school year there are large carryovers in those categorical funds, and spending some of that money would not harm the program for which it was designated. “Getting that flexibility has allowed us to retain some of our teachers,” he said.
Williams added that the LBUSD is currently asking for flexibility in the spending of federal categorical funds. “It looks like we are going to be successful there as well,” he added.
Williams also mentioned another potential source of funding– the federal Race to the Top program, which has replaced the former No Child Left Behind program. “There have been some concerns about what that truly means for our teachers in terms of how they are evaluated,” he noted, adding that TALB is opposed to the program.
“Let me say that we understand the concerns raised by the teachers,” he said.
He explained that the legislation uses the academic achievements of students as part of the process of evaluating a teacher’s effectiveness. Schools enrolled in the Race to the Top program whose students do well, or whose students have shown significant improvement, are eligible to receive more federal funds.
Williams stressed that the LBUSD already uses student achievement as part of the process of evaluating a teacher’s effectiveness. “Being able to obtain some of that (federal) funding will also enable us to retain some of our teachers,” he added, noting that the LBUSD is currently trying to reach a memorandum of understanding with TALB with regards to how the school district will connect with Race to the Top. “This legislation is really introducing some accountability to the teaching process,” he said.
Williams reminded the audience that the LBUSD was ranked the best urban school district in the nation in 2003 by the nationally recognized Broad Foundation and has been ranked among the five best school districts in the nation every year since. “There are 100 large school districts in the United States with a student population in excess of 50,000,” he said. “Long Beach Unified has 90,000 kids, and we are ranked against all the other large school districts in the United States.” He noted that being ranked among the five best brings $500,000 in scholarships for LBUSD students every year.
He added that this year, the LBUSD received $50 million in scholarships from colleges and universities throughout America, up from $40 million last year. “What that says is colleges and universities throughout this nation are spending money to recruit kids from this district,” he said. “That’s making a profound statement about teachers and parents and staff in this school district. We are very proud of the fact that the scholarship amount continues to increase.”
Another source of pride for Williams is a Newsweek article that came out last week in which it was mentioned that eight Long Beach high schools had been nominated among the top high schools in the United States.
Turning to another facet of LBUSD operations, Williams said he is glad about a recently approved bond issue that is allowing the District to renovate and repair existing schools. “We have some capital-improvement projects that are now underway,” he said, noting that bond issue money can only be used for capital improvements, not for salaries. He listed several projects underway in the District, including the planned construction of a new high school adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway campus of Long Beach City College.
Williams also noted that the LBUSD is currently studying the possibility of developing “smart classrooms” which would allow pupils to interact with teachers and other students all over the world via the Internet. He added that the LBUSD is also receiving grants from the Port of Long Beach to install air-filtration systems in schools impacted by port-generated air pollution.
Williams closed by noting that many LBUSD students are scoring high on high school exit exams, getting scholarships and attending colleges and universities throughout the United States. “There are some good things happening in Long Beach in spite of our budget cuts,” he said. “It’s a good school district. It really focuses on one thing– kids in the classroom.”