The teachers union at the Centinela Valley high school district in Lawndale is accusing the school board and superintendent of breaking a promise to reopen the recently gutted adult-education program should voters approve various tax hikes to benefit schools.
Both the statewide Proposition 30 and a local parcel tax for schools - Measure CL - succeeded in November. But with the exception of a pending uptick of credit-recovery classes offered to struggling high school students, the bulk of the adult-education program that was shuttered last spring remains closed.
This includes the entire slate of vocational-education classes that prepared adult students in Lawndale, Hawthorne and Lennox for careers in contracting, medical assistance, office administration and the like.
Teachers union President Jack Foreman, who is generally seen as a voice of moderation in the highly politicized Centinela Valley Union High School District, chastised the school board about the matter last week.
"You will ruin your relationship with your union," he warned at the school board meeting. "I'm not saying it's completely ruined. But it's damaging."
Last spring, at the height of the budget crisis afflicting California's public schools, adult-education programs took a beating throughout the region. But few were decimated as deeply as Centinela's.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, adult education was slated for complete elimination, but school employees and the district agreed to take furloughs and it is now running at about half capacity.
In the Centinela Valley school district - which consists of Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools - the adult-education program has dwindled from about 20 teachers in the spring to the current four. The remaining teachers maintain a meager remnant of offerings that includes credit recovery for high schoolers and some English as a Second Language classes for adults.
Superintendent Jose Fernandez - who, incidentally, ran Centinela Valley's adult-ed program for a decade ending in 2008 - doesn't dispute that he promised last spring to recommend restoring adult-education programs should the initiatives pass. But he says one major variable has changed since then: Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed shifting the burden of teaching adult education to the community college system.
"That came out of left field for us," he said, adding that he opposes the idea. "When it was announced, we were shocked. So we have to see what actually happens."
Fernandez added that, beginning next month, the district will increase the workweek of the few remaining adult-education teachers, thereby nearly doubling the capacity for high school students in need of credit recovery. (This happened largely in response to Foreman's warning to the board on Jan. 16 that the cuts could harm the district's graduation rate.)
Fernandez thus asserts that the promise hasn't been broken.
"Our presence is beginning to expand, though maybe not as fast as everyone would like," he said.
Former teachers don't see it that way.
Debby Benesch, who taught ESL adult-education classes in Centinela Valley for 35 years, retired last year because she could see the writing on the wall. She said she feels betrayed by the district's hesitancy to reinstate the classes.
"I feel terrible for the students," she said. "I don't really understand why the superintendent reneged on his promise."
Meanwhile, many of the teachers who lost their jobs last spring remain out of work. Among them is Jim Weber, who taught a class designed to prepare students to pass the exam for admission into a construction union. (Fernandez himself hired Weber in 1999.)
Weber's wife recently lost her job as a maintenance worker for a mobile-home park - right around the time his unemployment benefits ran out. The Harbor City couple has three children, ages 14, 16 and 23.
"I'm hoping to find some work," Weber said. "I'd like to go back to teaching at Centinela. But it doesn't look like it is going to happen."
Also among the laid-off teachers is Cristina Chiappe, who taught a popular medical-assisting class.
Chiappe, long an elected school board member for the K-8 Hawthorne school district, has brought a fair amount of media attention to the issue.
In April, she came to a Centinela Valley school board meeting dressed as a skeleton to protest the "bare-bones budget." This fall, months after her medical-assisting class had been cut midyear from Centinela Valley - leaving many students in the lurch - she was profiled in a Daily Breeze story for continuing the class in secret at an undisclosed location. She did this because the city of Lawndale had rejected her proposal for a permit due to inadequate parking. That story later was picked up by CNN and other national media outlets.
In those stories, Chiappe was primarily advocating for her students. Now, she is becoming scared for herself.
As with Weber, Chiappe's unemployment checks have stopped arriving. She and her husband - an adult-education teacher in the Compton Unified School District - have sold their house and are renting.
"I look for jobs every day," she said. "There is nothing open."
Chiappe, 60, is still trying to open a nonprofit school of her own - above board this time - but she fears the start-up costs associated with finding a location are prohibitive.
"It seems like you just run into walls," she said. "Even though I'm the most positive person, it seems like every door closes, and you're just running from problem to problem to problem."
To top it all off, she is having health issues. On Tuesday, Chiappe underwent surgery to have a tumor removed from the parathyroid gland in her neck. (Doctors believe it's benign.)
"To be honest with you, I feel healthy and full of energy," she said. "I want to continue working."
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