The South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education Tuesday night took the difficult and final step of laying off two teachers because of declining enrollment.

One of those teachers, Melissa Cheng, a part-time Chinese language teacher, prompted a small protest at the last School Board meeting on April 3. About a half-dozen parents and friends appeared in front of the board protesting the layoffs and holding signs that said, “No to Cuts” and “Keep All Our Language Classes.” The small band of protesters said eliminating the part-time teacher position would adversely affect the Chinese language program. The second teacher facing a layoff is a full-time social studies teacher without seniority.

The school board Tuesday night took the final step in laying off the two teachers when it voted unanimously for a resolution that implements the cuts, effective at the end of this school year.

The termination process began back in March when early enrollment figures indicated an enrollment decline and “insufficient enrollment in high school Chinese and Social Studies to fill the number of classes offered this year in those subjects,” according to a report prepared by the Administrative Law Judge Thomas Heller, who heard the termination appeal of the two teachers. Heller’s order, dated May 2, was for the district to proceed with the layoffs.

South Pasadena Unified Superintendent Dr. Geoff Yantz said Tuesday night during the board’s discussion of the layoffs that “making the difficult decision” to cut the positions now is going to allow the district to continue providing quality education in the future.” Yantz also said if enrollment figures improve in the future, the board can make adjustments at that time.

Despite the cuts, members of the School Board vowed to keep intact its commitment to foreign language instruction.

“I lost my first job to a layoff; so, I don’t enter into this action lightly,” School Board member Julie Winkle Giulioni said in an email to the Review prior to the meeting Tuesday night. “But, in this case, it’s necessary to maintain appropriate staffing ratios and to ensure that we can continue to offer the rich array of programs and services our students need. This decision doesn’t reflect a lack of support for any program and I remain firmly committed to foreign language instruction throughout the district.”

One of the main protestors at the board’s earlier meeting in April, Robert Liu, Cheng’s spouse, was concerned the layoffs would result in a drastic cut in the language program, forcing students into an overcrowded situation or having some drop out of the language program altogether.

However, Jon Primuth, School Board president, reiterated the district’s commitment to the foreign language program, saying there are steps that can be taken to even strengthen the program.

“…although we wish we could have avoided the staff reduction, I strongly believe there are positive steps we can take to strengthen the Chinese language program at the high school,” Primuth said in an email to the Review prior to Tuesday night’s meeting. “When I met with the parents on April 10, I challenged them to join me in forming a booster club to support our Chinese language program through fund-raising, extracurricular activities and language and cultural immersion experiences.   As a Chinese speaker who learned the language in China, I am passionate about giving our students immersion experiences.  I raised my hand to help organize the club and its initial activities.  Let’s send our students to China; I’ll be a chaperone. Let’s immerse them in language and culture outside the classroom. We live in one of the largest Chinese immigrant communities in the US. Let’s take advantage of that. “

School Board member Dr. Michele Kipke appeared to summarize the sentiments regarding the board’s “difficult but necessary decision” to implement the layoffs.

“It certainly doesn’t feel good to take these steps to release two of our employees,” Kipke said in an email to the Review prior to Tuesday night’s meeting. “I know how hard they have worked to support our students, and for that we are grateful. That decision was made based on anticipated student enrollment and no, we do not expect it will have an impact on our ability to offer Chinese language classes at the high school. We remain committed to our strategic goal to: ‘Expand world language and cultural experiences for students who desire to gain proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing a language other than English.”

The South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education’s next scheduled meeting is June 12.

Steve Whitmore
Author

Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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