Santa Monica-Malibu School District Lays Off Dozens After Sharp Drop In Early Education Enrollment 

An example of how child care centers should now separate toys and art supplies into individual plastic bags for each child. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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For Santa Monica High School science teacher Jessica Gutierrez, having child care for her infant son on campus was a working parent's dream.

"They were kind of like our extended family," Gutierrez said of the center's early childhood staff. "They were playing a big part in helping us raise our kids."

Her sons, 4-year-old Rex and 19-month-old Rein, were two of about 1,000 students enrolled in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District's infant, toddler, preschool and child care programs last year.

This year is different.

Gutierrez's sons are at home, and like many parents, she wasn't thrilled with the idea of distance learning for her toddler and didn't enroll him in the program. The result was a sharp drop in revenue — and the district is now closing the gap with layoffs of dozens of educators.

The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District combines state funding for preschool and child care — mostly for low-income families — with revenue from charging tuition on a sliding scale to maintain its infant and toddler, preschool and before and after-school child care programs.

"There is a weight, like no other I've had in my 24 years of, of this profession, on my shoulders, and it pales in comparison to what I know our staff are dealing with" said Early Learning Director Susan Samarge-Powell.

'BOYS, HEY, NO EATING MARBLES'

"The beginning of any school year is always transition and this one is just off the charts," Gutierrez said from the floor of her living room Monday while her sons played with colorful cylindrical blocks.

"They need you all day, and even when they don't, you know, they just hang on you- which you love. I love cuddling- but it's just exhausting sometimes," she said.

The Gutierrez family (clockwise) Jessica, Oscar, Rein and Rex. (Courtesy Jessica Gutierrez)

Then, as if on cue, she yelled, "Boys! Hey, no eating marbles!"

In the spring, she and her husband, a software developer, juggled their full-time jobs with child care.

This fall, her older son Rex, is in transitional kindergarten remotely, but she didn't enroll her toddler Rein in the district's online early learning program.

"I'm not going to put an infant in front of a screen, there's no way," Gutierrez said.

The family hired a nanny part-time to help out with child care. They're paying about $3,000 a month for 30 hours of care per week, compared with $2,800 for full-time care for both sons through district programs. It's a cost she knows some other families, like the teen parents at the high school where she teaches, who used the district's services can't afford.

She's also noticed behavioral changes in her 19-month-old now that he's not around other kids.

"I'm also concerned when and if he does go back to school, like, he already shows a little bit more separation anxiety," Gutierrez said.

FEWER FAMILIES, LESS FUNDING AND LAYOFFS

Unlike K-12 education, the state and federal government only fund early education and child care programs for the lowest income families and even then, it's not nearly enough money for every child who needs services to get them.

Last year, the budget for the Santa Monica-Malibu district's Child Development Services Department's budget was just under $10 million, with about 40% of the funding coming from the state for providing services to low-income families and a district investment of $1 million. Family fees fill out the rest of the budget, Samarge-Powell explained at a June 18 school board meeting.

"Typically one of our programs could support the other one if they weren't doing well, or vice versa, and it's just this has literally swept across all of our programs," she said in an interview.

There are almost 200 students enrolled in the district's preschool, infant and toddler and child care programs so far this year, and Samarge-Powell says the majority of these families qualify for subsidized services through the state.

The department depleted its $1.2 million reserve to continue paying staff after in-person programs closed in March.

If the district were to reopen in person programs, it would have to abide by L.A. County Department of Public Health guidelines that currently limit groups of children to 12, about half the number of kids that would normally be in an early education classroom.

This summer, in two separate meetings, the school board voted to lay off 59 teaching assistants, two community liaisons, an office specialist and about 34 teachers in the department.

"Child care is a priority. Early education is a priority," said board president Jon Kean at the board's July 16 meeting. "But we have to make sure that we can provide these services before we commit ourselves to a potentially budget-busting situation that we're just trying to drag ourselves out of."

'I FELT LIKE WE DIDN'T COUNT'

That message didn't reach educators like Monica Razon McMillan.

"I felt like we didn't count, the little ones don't count," Razon McMillan said.

She's been a teaching assistant in early education for 24 years and expects to lose her job on Sept. 18. The district said in an email that it brought back 11 teachers part-time to run the online early education programs.

Razon McMillan started the school year working seven hours a week, down from the 35 she'd normally expect, though the district is continuing to pay her full salary and benefits until she's laid off.

"We have, you know, money for a mortgage and we have money for our groceries, but, you know, but it's tight," Razon McMillan said.

She scrimped and saved to buy a new laptop in August to Zoom with students.

Virtually, she says her role is similar to the one she'd play in the classroom, helping the teacher keep track of about 20 preschoolers. Razon McMillan looks out for students who've gotten off task and corrects them, teaches lessons about letters and numbers to small groups, and now she also helps parents, and sometimes grandparents, troubleshoot tech issues.

She worries about how teachers will handle the class without extra support: "You're going to miss things because you're in Zoom and you're trying to manage the screen, manage, you know, how to do things."

UPDATE, 12 p.m., Sep. 3 — This article was updated to clarify that Monica Razon McMillan will continue receiving her full salary and benefits until she is laid off.