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Common Ground

Parks and Rec: The Half-timer’s Story






Judy West is a founding member and current president of Local 741 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME). She also works for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks as a recreation assistant and teaches “parent-and-me” classes. The department’s only fulltime employees are its directors and other administrators –  assistants like West work halftime. Frying Pan News reporter Luke Dowling sat down with her to talk about the state of unions in Los Angeles.

Frying Pan News: Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be president of AFSCME Local 741.

Judy West: I was one of its organizers and was treasurer for a while, then became president. We had nothing before we organized. When a union rep came in and said, “We’ve been asked by different rec assistants to organize a union,” I said, “You got me! I’ll help any way I can.” Even though we worked for the city we had absolutely no benefits whatsoever. There was no sick leave, no vacation, no benefits as far as medical. We have that now. It took us three years to get our first contract.

FPN: What was the situation before like?

WEST: There were directors that would be moved over to a new center and then fire all the rec assistants and just bring their old people in — the people they had been with before. They can’t do that now.

FPN: What do you love about your job?

WEST: I like helping people. I’ve had cancer twice and I wanted to make sure that people who did have to go through that could get information that I didn’t have. I wanted to help them so they could get through that time and know that it isn’t necessarily a death certificate.

FPN: What’s the greatest challenge facing L.A.’s parks and recreation workers?

WEST: That [management is] trying to outsource us. They keep putting new things on the centers to do — especially moneywise — that we never had to do before. They make it harder and harder. And then they say, “See they can’t do it and so they need to be outsourced.” If the park system is outsourced, the public will be paying a lot more and getting a lot less.

FPN: What sort of new tasks were given to the centers in the name of budget cuts?

WEST: The top 10 parks have been given the wonderful distinction of being totally self-sufficient. That means that they get no money from the city, yet still hand money over to L.A. from what they make, and have to pay for their fulltime directors and rec coordinators. That’s an extra $165,000 we never had to generate, and so some of the parks are in the red. These are the top 10 parks!

FPN: So they just took the top 10 parks in earnings and told them they had to make it with no money whatsoever?

WEST: Yes.

FPN: How do things like this and the budget cuts affect the public?

WEST: We have dance programs, we have gymnastics, I teach mommy-and-me classes. We have senior citizen centers so they have a place to go to socialize and eat lunch together. This will all be gone. This’ll be private and will cost more and a lot of people can’t afford it.

Children are not going to have anything to do that’s going to be constructive. Because kids aren’t going to have soccer programs, they’re not going to have programs for learning the piano that are affordable. Programs that teach them to be a team member in life. So they’re going to be looking for something to do and gang members are going to love to have these kids. The city overall is going to wind up paying more for the jail to put these kids in because they weren’t kept doing positive things.

FPN: Have these budget cuts been passed on to the city’s workers’ benefits?

WEST: Oh yeah, they’re fighting us tooth and nail. Now, when the city was reeling a couple years ago, they came to us and said, “We need help, we need to get out of this situation that we’re in.” And six of the unions got together and became a coalition. We bargained together. We got together, we voted and we said, “Okay, we will not take the raises that have been bargained for in past years in order to help the city.”

We did that and the city has gotten into a much better situation. Now they’re trying to turn around and say, “Those idiots don’t work, they don’t really care and so they shouldn’t have their raises.”

FPN: The department’s website has a statement apologizing for the “reductions and eliminations of programs and the cleanliness of our park system,” and then promises “50 parks over the next three years.” How can they promise something like that with the budget cuts?

WEST: They’re doing it on our backs – “Let’s build some new parks even though we can’t service the ones we have.” It’s not common sense.

FPN: If you were an advisor to Mayor Garcetti what are the top things you’d tell him to change?

WEST: Care about the kids in L.A. That’s the top thing. We have to make sure that the citizens of L.A. get what their taxes pay for. These people have to work to have a place for their kids to go, where people that really care about the kids are watching them.

FPN: A new Los Angeles Times poll shows that most residents are happy with the quality of life in the city — how do you feel about the quality of life in L.A.?

WEST: It’s very hard. People come in and say, “Oh, you have a camp, how great!” Because the schools are out. And they go, “How much is the camp? Do you have anything for people that are having a hard time?”

I’m working at two of the top 10 parks and we can’t do that. We’ve done that in the past but we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to send them to other parks that hopefully have a program that can give them a break. To me, if you’re working for the city of L.A., you’re working for the people and you need to do what needs to be done.

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Common Ground

Dr. Jessica Bodoh-Creed: Adjunct for Now, Academic Forever





Dr. Jessica Bodoh-Creed. Photo by Skylar Sweetman.

(They drive our trains and buses, teach our children, repair our roads and protect our safety. Public employees perform these and countless other jobs, although they remain mostly off the radar of the public they serve. Our Common Ground series takes us into the lives of these men and women.)

In a large lecture hall in the Biological Sciences Building of Cal State L.A., a student in the introductory anthropology class raised his hand to inquire as to whether or not female chimpanzees demonstrated the same sexual behaviors with each other that males did. “Not that it matters…” he remarked sheepishly.  His question elicited giggles across the room while Dr. Jessica Bodoh-Creed shook her head knowledgably, visibly pleased with engagement of her students as she pointed out some key differences in male and female chimp behavior.  With captivating energy, Dr. Bodoh-Creed continued her lecture on the behavioral patterns of chimpanzees with anecdotes and media to maintain active listening among her one hundred and forty students.

Dr. Bodoh-Creed identifies in many ways – Media and Television Anthropologist, Texan, World Traveler – but in the classroom she is at the forefront a passionate educator.  A young graduate of Cal State L.A. with a PhD in the contemporary field of Media Anthropology (her dissertation entitled, When Pfizer Met McDreamy: A Classic American Love Story Between Medicine and the Media), Dr. Bodoh-Creed brings a cache of knowledge to her teaching that is vibrantly of the moment.  While she has been avidly percolating the curriculum she might one day teach for upper level media anthropology students, for the time being the classes available to her as an adjunct lecturer are limited to introductory and GE classes for her department.

As a lecturer holding a one-year contract at a public university, Bodoh-Creed has faced challenges that plight many other recent PhD graduates in her position.  Finding a full-time job in what she tersely describes as a “terrible job market” was not an issue she foresaw in the years leading up to her degree.  She recounts applying to one position last year that had two hundred and thirty applicants. “You have to imagine that in my position, after just getting my degree, not having any publications, I just don’t match up to somebody who’s already in a tenure track job.”  This job and many others she had pursued in the past two years were all granted to professors who had already held tenure.  “Lecturers didn’t even get a blip, how would they?”

Although Bodoh-Creed does not hold a tenure track position, she has taught an essentially full load of classes every term since beginning at Cal State L.A. in 2010.  There are certainly enough students and more than ample classes to merit a full-time position, but employing another tenure track position would be a far more significant financial investment on the part of the institution than employing an adjunct scholar on a yearly basis.  “We’re cheap labor and while a lot of people need those adjunct jobs, it’s just not the same kind of work as having tenure.”  For one thing, she is not eligible to act as advisor for student projects, which she has done in the past on her own time.  “If you’re tenure, then this is part of your salary.  The rest of us are doing this out of love for our students, because you care for them and want to foster their academic growth.”

While parts of her narrative mirror those of many others struggling within a plummeting academic job market, Bodoh-Creed counts her blessings and maintains positivity. “In the worst economic recession, I got really lucky in that I started with a full load of classes and have been able to keep teaching through this period of time during which so many people I know in this city and across the country haven’t.” Although her contract is brief (one year), she sustains a sense of security through the presence of the California Faculty Association on campus.  This union has been an invaluable resource in navigating her employment at the school.  “Knowing you’re within a network of people who understand where you’re coming from and are on your side is a very secure feeling, especially when you feel like you don’t have control of a situation.”  Her contract allows her access to health insurance, dental insurance, even life insurance is an option.  “If you get the contract you can get everything that you need.”

What keeps Bodoh-Creed spirited in her position is her students. She pushes them students to take hold of their education and apply it to service in the community, striving to transform each of her pupils into conscientious and critical-thinking Angelinos.  Cultivating students who are actively engaged citizens of their cultural environment is at the crux of her curriculum, and the most gratifying reward as a scholar and educator.  There may not be a tenure position available for Dr. Bodoh-Creed for some time, but her passion for teaching and love for her department at Cal State is enough to keep her in L.A.  “My husband and I love it here – it’s expensive, but LA is our home for now.”

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Common Ground

Pension Shock: Interviews With Three Retired Public Employees






Norma Anders (Photo: Bill Raden)

It’s official: America has entered a retirement crisis. Or, as Forbes understatedly put it, “the greatest retirement crisis in the history of the world.”

Frying Pan News recently spoke with some former state, county and municipal workers for a picture of how their retirements have been living up to their expectations.

Norma Anders, Long Beach

Retired career librarian Norma Anders’ eyes light up when she speaks of her 30 years in the City of Los Angeles’ public library system. “We make a big difference,” she declares proudly. “We’re one of the forces that’s giving our country an educated workforce, an informed citizenry. [It’s how] we’re going to be able to keep our [nation] growing and growing.”

Anders is having her morning tea in the well-manicured front yard of the modest clapboard house she shares with her retired husband, David, and her son Lee, who has moved back home while he finishes an accounting degree at Long Beach State. A small, exuberant and cherubic woman of 72, Anders, but for her still-strawberry-blonde hair, is almost the storybook picture of the kindly old grandmother from “Little Red Riding Hood.”

But the wolves that have been showing up at her door are of a breed never dreamed of by the Brothers Grimm.

“Ends don’t meet,” she says flatly. “Our pensions are not keeping up with the cost of living . . . We’re always struggling to keep up with inflation.”

So nearly a decade after retiring, Anders found herself returning to work as a substitute librarian. She isn’t alone. “Every retired librarian I know has returned to substitute work, because the pension we thought would be adequate is not,” she says. “So we go back because it’s not stretching. We go back to help our families. Single moms have never quit. They’ve retired and then went to work as a sub and are still doing so, even though they retired in 2003 or 2004.”

Anders is more fortunate than many. Her gross annual pension is a tidy $49,000, and her husband Dave, who worked for L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, also draws a retirement income.

“At least we have a pension,” she says. “[But] Instead of helping us stay even kind of stable, it is inadequate to maintain where we were before we retired.”

Working in her 70s is a far cry from how Anders pictured the retired life.

“I imagined I’d be doing all these wonderful things,” she says, “including some travelling. I imagined we’d have a motorhome, so we could see the United States together . . . We didn’t travel much during our working years. But I always imagined I would be doing that, and I imagined that we would be able to afford to do that. And that wasn’t true. That did not come true at all.”

The shock of retirement came from routine expenses that she had taken for granted when she and her husband were both working.

“One of the things with retirement,” Anders says, “is you don’t set aside enough to be able to replace your vehicles. So my van is a 2003. David’s is 1999, I think. A little Ford Focus. Lee has a small Ford Ranger, and he just had to have $2,000 of work. I just had to have $700 done. So those are really serious bills, those repair bills that come around.”

Her biggest fear, however, remains her health and stamina.

“How long can I keep doing this before my body gives out?” she wonders. Her goal is to rack up the 40 calendar quarters of employment she needs to qualify for free Medicare. (As city workers, neither she nor her husband paid into Medicare or Social Security.) “Despite rumors to the contrary,” she says, “librarians are on their feet all the time they’re working. I’m 72 — my little body isn’t 40 anymore.”

 Jesse Espinoza, Sacramento

Like his father before him, 68-year-old Jesse Espinoza has worked hard all his life. Partly, that’s because he’s had to. Married three times and divorced twice, Espinoza had six kids and three wives to support.

And over that lifetime, he’s mastered a dazzling variety of skills. Need a concrete driveway poured? You called Jesse. Need your house rewired or your kitchen remodeled or your bathroom re-plumbed? Jesse was your man. The same went for upholstery (cars or couches), custom-designed furniture or even welding.

But by the time Jesse was in his mid-50s, it finally sunk in that there might come a day when he couldn’t keep up his physically punishing pace. So in 1999, he jumped at the chance to apply for a position with the state of California. After  camping out overnight at a CalWORKS skills center, he got a job as a field maintenance worker for the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA), which administers the local Head Start program.

And for the next decade, he did his part to keep SETA’s 43 school buildings in good working order. But by 2009 the years and an accident had taken their toll on his legs, so he opted for retirement at 64. “[Working became] kind of hard,” he recalls, “because I had to carry backpacks, and I did a lot of walking and stuff. And [my legs] kind of started to bother me, you know?”

The other reason he took retirement, Espinoza admits, was to spend quality time with his grandkids, get in a little fishing on the Sacramento River and pursue his dream of designing and building fine furniture. In fact, his idea of rest and relaxation continues to be slipping out to his garage workshop and building whatever his current backyard construction project happens to be.

“I’ve always been a designer since I was a little kid,” he says. “I have my own style. That’s what people are looking for.”

But four years after leaving SETA, retirement hasn’t turned out quite as he expected. Despite a monthly pension check of $850 and an additional $1,100 from Social Security, Espinoza says that it’s a struggle just to make certain his health insurance premium gets paid.

“What’s so strange is that I retired and I had these goals and it didn’t happen,” he says. “And when you have all these bills and stuff coming at you, it just kinda takes all that away from you. So basically what I’m doing is working and trying to catch up with those bills.”

Which is why Espinoza recently returned to SETA as an independent contractor, filling in for vacationing or sick workers. That’s when he isn’t taking on some remodeling work to make ends meet.

And that quality time he imagined spending with his grandkids as a retiree? It turns out to be taking them along on a job.

“I had my grandson with me last Saturday,” Espinoza recalls. “Because I used to like to take him fishing or something. And I had him work with me for the whole day. I showed him how to rip out a whole floor, how to replace all the bad wood, and how to put tile on there. And he really enjoyed it. And I told him, I said, ‘You’re going to learn something big that you’re never going to forget.’”

Patricia Everetts, Concord

When Patricia Everetts moved to the Bay Area in 1985 and landed a job with the Contra Costa County Superior Court as an account clerk, she thought she had hit the jackpot as far as providing for her family and her retirement security went. Her husband had recently died, and at age 47 she found herself supporting a disabled son and a grandson.

“I felt that by going into government I would have more of an opportunity to have a better retirement,” she says. “Because I did have some medical problems. And so I thought that it was secure and that I could retire from the courts and make a decent retirement.”

So for 18 years Everetts went to work auditing the administration and bookkeeping departments of Contra Costa’s courthouses, eventually working her way up to the position of grant accountant. She bought a house in Concord and life was good.

But a heart condition eventually caught up with Everetts (she’s had four stents and is about to get her third pacemaker), so in 2003 she was forced to take retirement at age 62.

Everetts quickly discovered, however, that even with the $1,400 a month she gets from Social Security, her $1,680 monthly state pension check meant that she and her family were going to have to do without. Beginning with her house, which she was forced to let go. And paying bills on time. And eating out. Or sometimes even eating at all.

“I never thought, when I was working, that I’d see the day that I couldn’t afford to pay the basics,” she says with frustration. “I have friends who go to the food bank sometimes and get us food. Just the basic necessities. Sometimes I’ve had to ask for assistance in paying my utilities. And that’s the hardest part — having to go to somebody and say, ‘I really can’t pay this. Can I apply and get a lower rate for my utilities?’ Sometimes they do that, sometimes they don’t.”

Not that Everetts ever imagined retirement was going to allow her to live as large as when she was working. But she did think she’d be able to afford her retirement dream of taking trips back to the Midwest to visit family or to splurge on an occasional evening of theater or a movie and a dinner in San Francisco.

Instead, her retirement travels have been more local. “Once in a while,” she admits, “I’ll take a day trip some place on the bus through the senior center — that’s like $36. I don’t go to movies. We very seldom ever go out to eat. I do play canasta, because it only costs me a dollar-and-a-half . . . You know, I don’t do a lot.”

She worries that California’s retired public workers are seen as having life too easy.

“The most anxiety is that they might cut Social Security,” Everetts says. “I know some of the stuff that they say is for the new people coming up, but there’s so much propaganda about it that you’re not sure.”

(Bill Raden is a freelance Los Angeles writer. Gary Cohn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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Common Ground

The Job of a Lifetime: Caregiving for a Disabled Daughter






(Cathy Ellorin photo by Luke Dowling)

Cathy Ellorin has to fight for each and every hour of her job. In fact, she has to fight to convince the people who pay her that what she does is a job at all. It’s not as though she works short hours; actually, she gets no time off at all. Her job isn’t easy, either.

Cathy is currently employed as an in-home caretaker to her daughter Natalia, who has cerebral palsy. California State’s In-Home Supportive Services program (IHSS) provides Cathy with  financial support to enable her to stay at home with Natalia and keep her safe and happy. But Cathy has to fight to keep this support coming.

From the first years of Natalia’s life, Cathy could tell something wasn’t right. Natalia’s tremors were disconcerting enough, but the daughter’s inability to feed properly was far worse.

Cathy took Natalia to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for a wide range of neurological testing, which revealed nothing except a case of hypotonia. Cathy knew that couldn’t be right — the problem seemed to be worse than a mere lack of muscle tone. Natalia was missing all of her developmental milestones: She didn’t start walking until she was 2 and all of the things that seem to come naturally to other toddlers were much more difficult for her.

Natalia visited another six neurologists at marquee institutions — including Cedars-Sinai and UCLA — before being diagnosed, at the age of 14, with ataxic cerebral palsy. It was a mystery for Cathy why this took so long. To her it was clear that from birth Natalia demonstrated more than half of the symptoms associated with ataxic CP.

Today Natalia, now 16, has limited verbal skills and has issues with spatial and social limitations; she is so sweet and trusting that it is dangerous for her to be on her own. So she needs lots of care and near-constant supervision. Fortunately, through IHSS, Natalia receives the best care and supervision money can buy: her own mother.

Founded in the 1970s in response to disabled individuals’ calls for flexibility and control over their own treatment and caretaking, the IHSS provides an alternative to out-of-home care facilities by helping pay for in-home care for the disabled.

This program is a godsend for Cathy and Natalia. Without IHSS compensation, Cathy, who retired from her flight-attendant job to care for her daughter, would have to take another job and Natalia would most likely have to be placed in a group home.

Even though Cathy is grateful that IHSS exists, her experience with it has hardly been completely positive. As Natalia wasn’t diagnosed with cerebral palsy until she was 14, just two years ago, Cathy had to fight to get her into the program. Because Cathy was married at the time, she had to apply for a Medi-Cal waiver to get her daughter enrolled.

The difficulties didn’t stop there. When IHSS registers a patient, the agency sends a social worker to do an in-home evaluation of the needs of the disabled person. The social worker looks at precisely what the person needs assistance with and how much of it is needed— measuring how long each task takes in minutes. The social worker then adds up that time and IHSS pays, based on his or her evaluation. The maximum amount of time one can get for caring for a minor is 195 hours per month (e.g., for the month of August, 6.5 hours a day, seven days a week.) In San Diego, IHSS pays $9.50 an hour, which means that many in-home service providers need to hold another job – or go on welfare.

Initially, Natalia was authorized for only 70 hours of care per month. This short amount of time is not uncommon. Despite IHSS saving the state money compared to the cost of services charged by group homes or other such programs, there is massive institutional pressure to limit the amount of hours any one provider receives.

The number of hours allocated for home care are divided over three broad areas: personal care (including bathing, food), paramedical care (medication, exercise) and protective supervision (time spent watching patients for their own safety). IHSS is often reluctant to allot time for protective supervision and this was particularly bad for Cathy. She says she routinely hears comments from program administrators and social workers implying she shouldn’t qualify for protective supervision of her daughter because it’s her responsibility as a mother—comments she feels ignore the reality that supervision of a disabled child is infinitely more labor-intensive and time-consuming than for a non-disabled one.

The hurt from this cost-saving mentality was especially sharp after Cathy received the official diagnosis of her daughter’s cerebral palsy. When Cathy and Natalia moved from Los Angeles to San Diego following Cathy’s separation from her husband, their new social worker, after an evaluation, tried to cut their monthly care hours to a mere 20. The woman claimed that Natalia was no longer disabled and refused Cathy’s request for protective supervision.

For Cathy, that was it. She got in touch with Disability Rights of California, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal advice to disabled people and their advocates. The group reviewed Cathy’s case and agreed that IHSS was completely in non-compliance. DRC provided documentation of exactly how and why IHSS had failed. Cathy sent this information, along with a written letter, to the head of her local IHSS, as well as to the heads of the San Diego County IHSS and the Health and Human Services Agency in Sacramento. Within a day she received calls from all three agencies and had her daughter given full hours in the program.

Despite this victory, Cathy remains deeply worried about the numerous other beneficiaries of this program who can’t fight, don’t fight or don’t have access or knowledge of the resources available to them. Moreover, many Californians don’t see the program as important, ignoring the fact that, in Cathy’s words, “We’re all going to be disabled at some time in our life, through age or an accident. You never think you’re going to be disabled.”

Even knowing how crucial this program is— and how many people it helps— cities, counties and the state continue to cut its budget. Most recently, California imposed an eight-percent hour cut to all IHSS recipients. Health care programs are always vulnerable to cuts during a state budget crisis, but Cathy believes IHSS is the wrong one to trim.

“It’s about how we treat people,” she says.

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Common Ground

Aisha Blanchard-Young: A Passion for Teaching






(Photos: Tracy Fleischman Morgenthau)

(They drive our trains and buses, teach our children, repair our roads and protect our safety. Public employees perform these and countless other jobs, although they remain mostly off the radar of the public they serve. With our new “Pro Publica” series, Frying Pan News presents the lives of these men and women front and center.)

After 10 years of marriage, Aisha Blanchard-Young’s husband is still shocked by the amount of time Aisha spends in her kindergarten classroom teaching. He jokes that if someone really wants to find out what it is like to be a teacher, they should talk to a teacher’s spouse. As a quality control technician for a stadium electronics company, he never has to take his work home. Aisha isn’t as lucky.

During the school year Aisha gets up at five in the morning to ready herself and the couple’s two boys (one 5 and one 2) for the day. She drops them off at their pre-school before heading to work at Bennett/Kew Elementary School in Inglewood. Contractually, her day starts at 7:45 a.m., but she tries to get there at least 30 minutes early to go over her lesson plans, make sure the classroom is in working order and to use the copier.

Her students arrive at eight o’clock. From the moment they walk in, Aisha is wholly and completely there for them, making sure they’re happy, comfortable and ready to start learning— giving special attention to students who are having a hard time at home.

Aisha remembers one student from years past, Johnny, who had been dealing with the separation of his parents and the death of a grandmother. Aisha always made sure to connect with him the moment he entered the room to do “something that puts him in a different space.” Asking him how he was doing, telling him he looked sharp that day, anything to distract him from his problems outside of the classroom.

She has to be ready to do this for every one of her students — engaging with them, helping with their personal and educational problems until two o’clock. She rarely takes a lunch break, preferring to spend time going over assignments that the students find challenging or getting some more one-on-one time with them — which is hard to do with 32 pupils.

After her students leave, Aisha remains to prepare lessons and get ready for the next day of class before picking up her own kids at six. On the way to get them, Aisha makes a point to call her students’ parents to check in. She tries to foster an environment where parents aren’t afraid of getting a call from their child’s teacher. So, instead of calling only about problems, she tries to phone just to update parents. And she encourages parents to get in contact with her, giving out her number to each of them.

Her teaching style has a heavy social justice focus, especially for an elementary school teacher. In the past Aisha has taken students on field trips to schools in different communities to look at how their learning conditions vary. Her ultimate goal is to have her students actively participate in their own education to create self-motivated learners and critical thinkers.

Aisha traces her interest in social justice to her parents, both of whom are from Baton Rouge and experienced the very worst of the Jim Crow Deep South. They took it upon themselves to make sure their children were aware and knowledgeable of the social inequalities that exist in the United States, with a particular emphasis placed on education and hard work as tools that could be used to rectify them. Teaching became a natural career choice for Aisha.

At home, after feeding her kids, helping them with their school assignments and then putting them to bed, Aisha goes back to work. She reads education books, teacher blogs and Pinterest to pick up new techniques and activities to keep her students interested and engaged. And, of course, she has to deal with whatever household tasks need attention. At midnight, she finally heads to bed.

If time was the only contribution that was asked of her, that would be one thing. Many jobs, after all, require longer hours than the standard 40-hour work week. But that is hardly all she has to give up to do her job well. It is hard to talk to Aisha for very long without sensing her deep devotion to her students, “her 32 curious minds.”

It is well known that California’s public education system is in dire straits, with Los Angeles in particularly bad shape. But the Inglewood Unified School District is in an even more precarious situation. Taken over by the state last September, it is likely that the district will be the second in California’s history to be completely dissolved.

For Aisha, this means that she and her fellow teachers could face a pay cut of up to 15 percent. This is disheartening because the state voided a previous pay cut that had been negotiated by the Inglewood Teachers Association— by firing the superintendent who agreed to it and claiming that he didn’t have the power to negotiate the agreement in the first place.

Even more disheartening for Aisha personally is the fact that her family already runs on an incredibly tight budget— one that includes about $200 of spending a month on supplies for her classroom. She’s provided with supplies at the beginning of the school year: eight reams of paper, glue sticks, scissors and so on. However, eight reams of paper are hardly sufficient for 32 children’s homework, classwork and handouts for a whole year, while glue sticks run out and scissors break. So Aisha is left to purchase replacement supplies with her own money.

For her, a 15 percent pay cut is completely unsustainable. In anticipation of it, she is teaching summer school, a time she usually reserves to preparing for the coming school year and spending quality time with her kids. As she points out, this is the school district asking teachers to pay to keep their jobs. Even worse, Aisha has no idea where the money is supposed to come from. Does she sacrifice food? Tuition for her kids? Rent? Or the supplies she buys for her students?

But she is doing her best to keep giving her students the best education she can. In her words, “it’s hard to stay positive, but that’s also why it’s nice to be in the zone in your classroom because you can close the doors and it’s [me and my students] and I don’t have to think about everything else that’s going on… At least in that 8 to 2 o’clock period.”

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