New tennis shoes. Good ones. I got them every year just before Labor Day. They were a key part of our family's back-to-school ritual. I still associate September with new shoes.
Households all over Los Angeles are getting their kids ready to return to school. To California's great shame, those students are going to have a vastly different kind of public school than they had last year-fewer programs, crowded classrooms, and even more overworked staff.
Consider the predicament of Bell High School night custodian Theresa Aguilar...
Every night, Theresa is responsible for cleaning the girls' locker room (including showers, restrooms, and the coach's office), the School Gymnasium (sweeping, light mopping, and restrooms), the boys' varsity field house (including the football players' locker room and restrooms), the faculty restrooms, the photo lab and graphic arts classroom, and the Assistant Principal's office.
The state budget cuts to education forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to lay off three of Theresa's co-workers in June. As a result, she now has eight additional classrooms and another small gymnasium added to her nightly workload. Among other things, she worries about being able to adequately sanitize all the surfaces to protect students and faculty from the Swine Flu.
Theresa's story is echoing throughout the District. One thousand custodial, cafeteria, playground, and other essential classified positions were cut over the summer. They were eliminated as a result of California's drastic education budget cuts. With $5.2 billion in additional cuts to education in the recently signed state budget, more layoffs could be announced just as students start to settle in to the new school year.
School workers and the District are working together to prevent more cuts. Most of the summer was spent in discussions over furlough days to prevent the permanent loss of critical school staff. Bus drivers recently voted to accept six furlough days this school year. They could face more unpaid days off if additional furlough days are negotiated for all classified employees.
Furlough days are only a band-aid to stop the outright elimination of student services and programs. We already know quality will be diminished. School bus rides may be eliminated for 5,100 children. With fewer cafeteria workers at schools, fresh food prepared on-site won't be readily available. And, with most custodians handed workloads like Teresa's and directives from the District to only clean classrooms once a week, you can bet hallways won't be mopped daily, classrooms won't be dusted as often (parents, please keep an eye on your asthmatic children), and bathrooms won't be monitored as closely.
Compare that to the "back to school" excitement and anticipation we felt when we put on those new tennis shoes, symbols of the promises the new school year held. "I get to learn long division! I'm going to be on the basketball team! I get to have Mr. Smith for English class!"
Let's wake up from our dreamy recollections. Let's imagine a school bus crashing in super-slow motion - taking decades to become a totaled pile of bus-yellow steel. Who would be alarmed? It's almost no wonder we haven't woken up. California has been underfunding its schools for decades. With an education system that was once the envy of the country 30 years ago, we now rank 47th in per-pupil spending compared to other states. We're at or very near the bottom of other indicators, too, such as student-teacher ratios and graduation rates. But somehow, this slow-motion school bus wreck has not caused enough collective alarm for us to wake up and say "Hit the breaks!"
Until Californians are willing to invest in our children's education, until we stop allowing Big Oil to avoid paying their fair share while they reap colossal profits, until we close loopholes for other large corporations (that require an educated workforce), we will continue to send our children back to public schools that struggle to do more, with less, each year.
Bill A. Lloyd is the Executive Director of the Service Employees International Union Local 99. SEIU Local 99 represents nearly 30,000 classified school employees working for the Los Angeles Unified School District.