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Cuts around the class

Part III in a series exploring budget cuts' effects on schools

Posted: April 20, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: April 20, 2012 1:30 a.m.
From left, Associated Student Body adviser Matt Sheridan and Assistant Principal Chad Powell discuss event planning in Sheridan’s class at Rio Norte Junior High School in Valencia in March. From left, Associated Student Body adviser Matt Sheridan and Assistant Principal Chad Powell discuss event planning in Sheridan’s class at Rio Norte Junior High School in Valencia in March.
From left, Associated Student Body adviser Matt Sheridan and Assistant Principal Chad Powell discuss event planning in Sheridan’s class at Rio Norte Junior High School in Valencia in March.

Seventh- and eighth-graders eagerly raise hands to offer hypothetical event problems, and Chad Powell, assistant principal at Rio Norte Junior High School, can barely contain himself.

Powell wants to jump in and answer a question, but the event-planning exercise is in full swing, and the energetic 40-year-old doesn’t want to interrupt the lesson plan of Matt Sheridan, the Associated Student Body teacher/adviser at Rio Norte.

“What types of problems can come when we’re planning something?” Sheridan asks the class.
Hands fly up. Answers give way to more questions.

A student asks a question about an issue Powell knows well, and the administrator abandons restraint. Sheridan knows his class is in good hands with the man who won the William S. Hart Union High School District’s 2011 Teacher of the Year award for teaching the same course.

“I couldn’t hold back any longer,” Powell says later with a smile. “I remembered that problem from last year.”

After that, Powell waves a quick hello to his 13-year-old daughter, McKenna, who’s also in the class, and makes his exit. He makes a point not to visit any class for too long.

“If I’m in there for 20 minutes, the teacher might start to get nervous,” Powell jokes.

But the truth is, he doesn’t have enough time to hang around. Budget cuts have split his job between Rio Norte and Arroyo Seco junior high schools on alternate days, and he has to visit classrooms for roughly 2,400 students to make sure the courses align with the state’s curricula and progress at the proper rate.

Pacing is really the name of the game for Powell. He also has to keep moving so he can supervise extracurricular programs, attendance issues and disciplinary actions.

Then it’s back to the office for the roughly 100 or so daily emails he gets from parents, teachers and the schools’ contracted services.

“Ultimately, my job is to make sure that (teachers like) Matt can teach, and not have to worry about things outside of the classroom,” Powell said.

Rio Norte also has full-time Assistant Principal Francine dos Remedios to help handle the workload that used to be taken on by two full-time assistant principals.

On paper, there’s a separation of their duties, she said. But the reality is slightly different.

“On days when Chad’s not here, I pray that the kids behave,” she said. “That’s my Facebook status. I just hope two things don’t go wrong at the same time.”

More budget cuts
Across the Santa Clarita Valley, “assistant principal” is a role that’s disappearing. “The state budget is absolutely crushing us. It’s put limits on our time, on our tools — on everything we can do,” Powell said.

The cuts frequently put administrative jobs such as Powell’s on the chopping block as district leaders try to save teacher positions and keep student-to-teacher ratios as low as possible.

Consequently, on May 15, many of Powell’s peers in other districts throughout the Santa Clarita Valley will find out if their positions will be around next year.

Last year alone, the Hart district, which includes Powell’s two junior highs, lost $34 million from state funding revenue, according to district figures. Layoffs were avoided by actions such as splitting assistant principals between schools.

“The Hart district has been fortunate to avoid layoffs (during the current school year) through very conservative fiscal planning,” said district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker.

But the number of employees has slimmed through attrition.

Previously, the district laid off all six receptionists at all junior highs.

While administrative cuts may lessen the direct impact on students, an increased workload is thrust upon those who are left.

In some districts, the effects have been more immediate.

Pink slips
Under state law, districts are required to issue preliminary pink slips by March 15 to certificated employees who may lose their jobs the next school year.

But those notices can be reversed, depending on state budget figures — which are never finalized by March 15. Final pink slips are required by May 15, when firm budget numbers are supposed to be available.

Newhall, Sulphur Springs and Saugus Union elementary school districts handed out more than 150 preliminary pink slips before the March 15 deadline.

Saugus Union has six assistant principals who received the notices.

Kate Peattie, assistant principal at Stevenson Ranch Elementary School in the Newhall School District, said she has received a preliminary pink slip each of the past three years — since she was promoted from her teaching position. But each year, the district was able to save her job.

She doesn’t resent district leaders for the notices. The choices they have to make are just as undesirable as the uncertainty she faces, she said during a Sunday spent catching up on attendance records at her school office.

“It’s always unpleasant to receive a pink slip. But I understand why the district has to do it, and I think that the district has done a really good job of keeping cuts away from kids,” Peattie said.

“They’ve done a really good job of doing that as much as possible.”

But there’s still administrative work to be done — and fewer days to do it. “Things like the office hours have been cut, so the people that work in our office don’t have the same hours that they used to have,” Peattie said.

“I think I’m speaking for everyone in the district when I say there have been so many cuts to the budget, we’re kind of all taking on more than we’ve had to before.”

If her position is cut for next year, Peattie knows there will be a teaching job available for her because of her seniority.
But that offers little solace.

“It would be a double-edged sword,” she said, “because I would be pushing out a teacher with less seniority.”

For the rest of the series, click here


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