Thursday, March 13, 2008 | Four years ago, politicians cut a red ribbon at Marie Curie Elementary to celebrate its new library, a freestanding building crisply painted plum, blue and white. Today, principal Chris Juarez struggles to pay for the single person who staffs it.

Tuesday, as a gaggle of fourth graders awaited their turn to borrow “American Girl” books, a girl could be overheard goading two friends to help save the library. Maybe they could sell lemonade, she suggested.

Sitting in the shadow of the University of California, San Diego, Curie doesn’t look like a school at risk. While other San Diego public schools scrape for students, Curie has a waiting list; its test scores are among the highest in San Diego Unified. Unlike other schools, it has relatively few low-income students, and only a small fraction are learning English.

Ironically, it’s exactly those factors that worsen Curie’s standing as state budget cuts jeopardize San Diego schools. Schools with many high-need students get extra federal funding, aimed at closing the achievement gap. Curie lacks those resources, which may help other schools blunt the state cuts.

Curie Elementary offers a window into how the state’s budget crunch, debated in drab government chambers, could impact the children and teachers of one school. If budget cuts become reality, this is the new Curie Elementary: a school where a plush new library goes unstaffed, nurses and counselors are absent and teachers see their per-student supply budget drop from $250 to $100.

Budget cuts threaten to halve the funds that Juarez uses to pay for counselors, nurses, classroom aides and custodians. Asked to shave more than $125,000 from his University City school, Juarez reluctantly cut nine non-teacher positions, leaving four employees out of work, and four working shorter hours. Only two were left untouched.

The cuts could strip Korean immigrant kids who know no English of the aide who helps them through bewildering classes, end math coaching for older students, and leave teachers without the guidance of a medically-trained nurse. The fates of teachers, custodians and Juarez himself are still unsure, dependent on decisions from the school district.

“It’s no longer things that we want” that Curie budgets for, Juarez said. “It’s what do we need, to run the school?”

One victim is the library, where assistant Mary Ann Petyak doubles as a computer and library assistant, working six hours a day. If budgets remain bleak, Petyak will only work one hour per day, effectively shuttering the new facility. Its doors will stay open, but no one will be there to help students, shelve books, or reel in volunteers.

Petyak, a single mother, already works another job. Here, she organizes and repairs books, swaps outdated texts for new ones, and organizes volunteers who tutor slow readers one-on-one. When Pluto was demoted from being a planet, she switched out the astronomy books. Her voice still registers shock as she imagines how the library will operate on a single hour a day.

“You can’t do it,” Petyak said ruefully.

But as the school district faces an $80 million shortfall, that’s exactly what Juarez and other San Diego principals have been asked to do.

The cuts are the consequence of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to close an estimated $16 billion deficit statewide. Long warned of massive cuts, principals in San Diego Unified schools finally got hard numbers March 3, and rushed to calculate their school budgets last week, facing a March 15 deadline to notify educators whose jobs might be slashed next school year. Principals decide how to spend a small segment of their school funds; the rest is controlled by the school district.

Technically, Curie faces a 3 percent budget cut. But Juarez, like all San Diego principals, can only control a sliver of his funds. Teacher salaries, for instance, are handled by the school district. As a result, a 3 percent cut feels like a 50 percent cut. This year, Juarez divvied up $256,780 among classrooms and staff, he said, paying for a part-time nurse and a counselor, an attendance clerk, field trips, paper and other necessities. Next year, he estimates he’ll spend $129,533.

“I was incredulous,” said Pia Sud, president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association. “You expect cuts, but not cuts of that scope. It’s ridiculous.”

In Juarez’ plan, gone are the aides who coach kids in math and coax English-learners along; gone is the school nurse, and gone is the counselor. In the school office, staffing has been cut by a third, excising two part-time positions. Money for classroom supplies will drop to $3 per student, per year. Nothing is budgeted for technology. Custodians will likely be cut back; Juarez isn’t sure by how much. The school board doesn’t decide their fate until April.

Those cuts, if sustained, will tax classroom teachers left at Curie. Lacking a counselor or a nurse, teachers have no one to call when medical emergencies erupt, or emotional crises undercut a child’s progress. With the librarian nearly gone, first grade teacher Monica Hernandez can still bring her classes to the library, but there’s no one to supervise checkout, to organize, replace and shelve books, and to guide students to resources in print and online. A volunteer program that helps struggling readers one-on-one — dubbed “the reading club” by students — can’t survive, Hernandez said.

Hernandez also relies on classroom aides to tailor lessons to individual students. When a local church helped Korean families immigrate to University City, students who knew no English began trickling into her classes, she said. The aide pulls them aside to help, making sure they don’t get lost in class. That job was cut.

Aides are especially significant in light of proposals to push class sizes higher, trimming teachers from the payrolls. Upper-grade Curie classes are already crowded, with teachers juggling 34 students in a class. Without aides, catering to each student is a challenge.

“It’s assumed that we’ll take on those extra jobs,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know how. I’m here until 5 or 6 o’clock. I’m here on weekends. We just can’t do it all.”

As schools such as Curie grapple with the crisis, each step is fogged with uncertainty. School budgets are crafted backwards: Principals choose how to spend their school funds before the school board acts; the school board decides which system-wide programs to snip and how many teachers might be dismissed long before California legislators finalize the state budget. Wednesday, Curie teachers were still uncertain who might lose their jobs, awaiting pink slips from the district. Lunch chatter among teachers is dominated by talk of the cuts.

At Curie, Juarez reviewed a list of employees’ first names jotted on a Post-It note, next to the number of hours saved by cutting or reducing the workers.

“This was our counselor,” he said, pointing to one name. Juarez spoke in the past tense, though the employees he lists are still working at Curie. “This was our school clerical assistant.”

If legislators stave off the school cuts, Curie and other schools can reinstate services and employees in the fall. But even if the cuts are averted, the shortfall has already taken a toll. Employees who expect to lose jobs will likely have split before any jobs are restored. And Juarez said he can’t count the hours spent planning for cuts — hours he would otherwise spend running his school. Everything that could be put aside was, he said. Tuesday, he wrote a letter to parents, apologizing for slower-than-usual replies to their questions and concerns.

The only Curie employees who were spared from cuts or reductions, in Juarez’ calculations, were a guidance assistant and a health assistant, each working part-time to compensate for the loss of the counselor and the school nurse. Across the district, 28 nursing jobs are at risk — a number that represents far more part-time employees.

Yet in some ways, Curie is lucky. Its Parent-Teacher Association shelled out nearly $60,000 last year to bring art and music specialists to the school, to help keep kids supervised at recess, and for a smattering of other services and supplies. Years ago, the school saved grant money for a rainy day: a sum of roughly $40,000 that Juarez has now allocated for copies and classroom materials. But if the budget crisis persists past next school year — a strong possibility, according to some analysts — that money will dry up. And parents say they can’t shoulder more costs.

“We already do a lot,” Sud said. “Our resources are limited. We can’t pay, for example, for a classroom teacher. We already bring Kleenex and pencils in September.”

Tuesday, as a class filed out of the Curie library, one freckled boy ran back, nonfiction book in hand. He wanted to exchange it for “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” a paperback that he breathlessly described to Petyak. It’s about a boy who opens a book, and unleashes a magical world, he said.

Petyak traded out the book, and watched him flit back out the door.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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