La Verne Magazine
Summer 2004


Saving Teachers From a 30-Day Notice

by Shelli DeRobertis
photography by Desiree Quintero


Behind the building, behind the man, are names and numbers on a magic sheet. Dr. William Brinegar, assistant superintendent of personnel and budgets for the Bonita Unified School District, holds the power to balance the budget, keep academic quality high and, in the process, keep staff in secure jobs.

Sitting in front of his computer, Dr. Brinegar, Ed.D., assistant superintendent of personnel and budgets for the Bonita Unified School District, could print out notices that give certain teachers 30 days warning of impending termination. Even the envelopes are ready to print.

But a smile quickly forms on his face. “First, we have terrific teachers; why would we want to do that?” he asks.

The way he says it makes it sound so simple. It did start with simplicity; the simple fact that Dr. Brinegar sincerely cares about the lives of each of his teachers. The fight to keep their jobs is where the challenge began. Before March 15, 2004, the Bonita Unified School District was prepared with four scenarios to choose from that are guidelines for their budget.

Rising over six feet tall as he stands, there does not seem to be a physical weight that Dr. Brinegar’s large stature cannot handle. The burdens are heavy, though, especially at a time like this when the budget crisis falls in his lap. Aside from being responsible for employee discipline, layoffs and termination, his hands also maintain the staffing of employees who are needed to run the 14 schools that make up BUSD. Dr. Brinegar knows how many students and teachers are part of the district; without as much as a wondering glance, he confidently gives the numbers. The district serves approximately 10,000 students, 480 teachers, 360 classified employees and 61 management personnel.

Each year, California school districts must file their annual predicted budget with the state by June. If it is projected that teacher layoffs are to be implemented, the district’s employees must be notified in writing by March 15. “It’s a challenging year for anybody in administration because the budget predicts a lot of flexibility of what you can do,” he says.

Claremont, a sister school district to Bonita, had an immediate deficit in spring 2004 and prepared to do what it had to do—eliminate class size reduction, which included the lay off of teachers. Class size reduction is a government program that disperses money to state and local education agencies to hire qualified teachers to reduce class size. The elimination of this program causes the release of some teachers, because a larger number of students will now be enrolled in each classroom.

According to Amy Mathison, a representative for the Claremont’s Save Our Schools Campaign, the district decided to eliminate kindergarten-through-grade-three class size reduction. Drama coaches, librarians and media staff, too, were in danger of losing their jobs because of the money deficit. Then parents rallied to save the Claremont schools through private fundraising efforts. Class size reduction and many teachers’ jobs were saved through this effort.

Bonita and Claremont work with approximately the same budget. At BUSD, the kindergarten through third grade student-teacher ratio is only 20:1. The question is, will BUSD choose to follow Claremont’s solution, and also increase classroom size and reduce staffing?

Dr. Brinegar leans forward in his office chair, peering through his glasses to his computer screen. One hand is on the mouse, and lines momentarily crease over his eyes as he turns and says, “We’re talking about people’s lives.”

So how did this caring, educated, determined man find himself in his current position as assistant superintendent over all of these teachers? He tilts back in his chair and laces his hands behind his head. No frown lines are intervening his memory now, as he recalls with a grin. “It’s Dr. Burns’ fault. Dr. Burns said, ‘I think you’d be a very good teacher.’”

Before he pursued his doctorate in education, Dr. Brinegar was once a teen at Claremont High School where his passion for music played out when he performed with the school music groups. He played the trombone, sang tenor, and played in honor band, jazz and orchestra ensembles. “I was very serious about music,” he expresses. It was during this melodious time that he met the captain of Claremont’s drill team, Kim Park. The two attended their first high school dance together and soon became inseparable.

When it was time for college, Kim (who holds an Ed.D. herself) chose the University of La Verne to pursue a degree in education. Dr. Brinegar headed for Citrus College in Glendora to make music his career. Both of his parents were educators; his mother had been an English teacher for many years. His father was a public schools administrator who eventually became superintendent for several school districts, including Claremont. About following the footsteps of the family business, Dr. Brinegar says, “Originally I was avoiding it.”

Looking back at his musical aspirations, he now says, “Being good is not good enough. I found out like a lot of kids did—most people can’t make it.” So when Citrus College wasn’t going to get him his lead in music, Dr. Brinegar transferred his studies to ULV as a humanities major to explore teaching.

He was a very intelligent student, according to Dr. Burns, who was Dr. Brinegar’s methods professor. Dr. Burns says he was “a dedicated and idealistic prospective teacher, with an almost irrational love and concern for other people’s children.” Dr. Burns made an opportunity to nurture those qualities, and opened the door that now houses the assistant superintendent.

It was 1973, and Brady Bunch episodes danced on television sets throughout La Verne’s neighborhoods. ULV’s football field was used on the weekends by Royal Oak High School’s football coach Lou Farrar. Farrar was a tight-end at UCLA and also played a short time for the Green Bay Packers. His notoriety did not go unnoticed by the neighborhood children. Forget the Brady’s—the children flocked to the University’s field every weekend to watch Farrar’s team play football. After the action on the football field dwindled and players trickled off the field, the children would still remain on campus.

“Lots of kids used to hang around when we’d do workshops,” Dr. Burns says. It was then that he tinkered with an idea.

Dr. Burns arranged for Dr. Brinegar and several other students to meet him in the gym where he led them to an old storage room that was not being used. When they opened the rickety door together, dust danced in rolling circles through the stream of sunlight. Boxes were stacked haphazardly atop one another, and a day’s worth of work lay ahead. Dr. Brinegar remembers that he eagerly helped clear out the boxes, sweep debris from the cold cement, and carry in stools and tables. They transformed the old building into a classroom/workshop, and invited the neighborhood children in.

“We were there to give them a Saturday diversion,” Dr. Brinegar tells. On his days as their teacher, he would play rented Laurel and Hardy movies for the children and help them with woodworking and crafts. Soon, other teachers and graduate students volunteered their time, and the program became a hit and lasted a couple of years. At the end of the experience, Dr. Brinegar says he was hooked on working with youth.

After graduating from ULV, then teaching for six years, Dr. Brinegar started working at Ramona Middle School in 1980. He became assistant dean of administrative student services and a two-periods per day English teacher. He enjoyed teaching, but for the first nine years of his career, that joy was diminished every time spring began to warm the air.

Dr. Brinegar calls it “the birthday blues.” But getting older was not part of the equation. He and Kim were both working on their doctorate degrees, had careers in education and were starting a family. His birthday is near the state-imposed deadline in March, when districts must notify teachers of impending layoffs. The computer annually sent the letter his way, as the new teachers and those with less seniority always seemed the first to be chosen to go.

Nothing could keep him from coming back, though, as Dr. Brinegar soon became assistant principal at Ramona Middle School. From there, he went in 1986 to Bonita High School as an administrator, then to San Dimas High School, where he spent more than 10 years as assistant principal. In 1999, Dr. Brinegar gained the position as Director of Human Resources of Secondary Education for the Bonita Unified School District, which led to his current title of assistant superintendent.

With roots in the La Verne area, Dr. Brinegar also has branches that stretch from being a member of the Claremont Presbyterian Church for 40 years. He is in his first year of a three-year term as a deacon for the church.

Another tradition is his 30 years playing trombone with the Chet Jaeger family/friends brass carol choir at Christmas. The high level traveling brass group leads him to church services and social gatherings from Temple City to Rancho Cucamonga. Dr. Brinegar is also one of five tenors who sing with the sanctuary choir in his church on most Sundays, keeping fresh his love for music. “The other family business is music,” he says. His father had a beautiful tenor voice and even marched in a band where he played the clarinet during the 1932 Olympics. His mother plays the piano, and his brother is a choir director at Pasadena City College. He pauses, chuckles, and says that the joke has always been that his mother was the only real tenor in the family.

Now as assistant superintendent, he regards the district money situation very seriously. His quiet voice takes on a stronger, solemn tone with these words: “Staffing takes so much planning because we’re talking about people’s lives. You don’t do this lightly.”

The status of the district’s health is a result of teamwork in action for a common goal, much like the teamwork of an athlete’s body training for a marathon where the feet, legs, arms, and every part work together to run the race. Anne Sparks, assistant superintendent of business services for BUSD, oversees numbers that determine how many teachers the district needs. Her staff generates specific data and provides it to the Budget Advisory Team. This team has about 24 people on it this year, according to Sparks, and it is made up of a variety of individuals from an administrative assistant, to support staff, to community members and classified employees. They meet beginning in February of each year, and Sparks says they “deal with budget issues and use of resources.” Sparks gratefully adds, “At this point, thankfully, we’ve been able to avoid personnel layoffs.”

After reviewing data from the Budget Advisory Team, Dr. Brinegar works together with Dr. Robert C. Otto, Superintendent for BUSD, during a six-month process, where the two build budgets and plan for the spending of the District’s money. They do not stop there, though. They also look at what is going on in other districts.

“There are a number of districts around us that are struggling,” Dr. Brinegar says. He also affirms, “We’ve been very fortunate, but we don’t think that the state budget crisis is going to go away any time soon, so we continue to plan and be very, very careful. This is not a time to be cavalier about how you spend money. Nobody knows what the state budget is going to be next year. You don’t sit around and wait. It’s far better to plan.” After a brief pause and a short sigh, he casually concludes, That way you don’t go into crisis mode.”

“We were working from December on,” recalls Dr. Brinegar, “We talk about this in December, and by January this is on a spreadsheet. You build contingency plans . . . a number of scenarios. When we get a clear picture of what the funding will be, we go with one of the scenarios.”

His blue polo shirt brushes against the table as he leans forward and does four little karate chops that echo on the formica. He demonstrates by tapping his finger on the separate spots. “If this goes wrong, we will respond like this.”

The four scenarios they are constantly looking at involve student enrollment and staffing. There are two types of enrollment, cohort and adjusted, and each of these models can be paired with either desired staffing or minimized staffing. Visualize a large “X” in the center of a sheet of paper: cohort enrollment and adjusted enrollment are stationed at the left side, top and bottom points of the “X,” and the staffing equations, minimized or desired, are the variables on the other points that can pair up with either enrollment situation.

The best-case scenario is labeled Cohort Enrollment, combined with desired staffing. Cohort Enrollment is a straight-line projection that uses the previous year’s enrollment and estimates on kindergarten enrollment and students who transfer in or out of the district. When paired with desired staffing, it is the best scenario to reach because it eliminates the need for reduced staffing.

Adjusted enrollment is projected by using a math model that formulates three years of cohort numbers and adjusts it based on past experience. BUSD is looking at adjusted enrollment and desired staffing, which Dr. Brinegar says, “Is somewhat a good place to be.” Adjusted Enrollment is just slightly under Cohort, and desired staffing allows the District to hire additional teachers later on, if it needs to, rather than layoff any now.

To help reach the desired staffing, the budget must be carefully evaluated, and an example of something cut from it this year is a fingerprint machine that became only optional when compared to teachers’ jobs. BUSD does not spend money in places where there is uncertainty, according to Dr. Brinegar, and it has always been careful about the planning. “If they tighten the money belt this year, they can cut less next year,” he says. “I’ve never seen a place better-run financially.”

Focusing back to the computer, his hand clicks opens a document as a flicker of light reflects on his gold watch. He refers to the document as the “magic sheet.” It’s just a spreadsheet. It has numbers, rows, shaded rows and names. Names. This is a sheet with names of all of the 480 teachers employed by BUSD. It is carefully tracked against who is retiring, who is on leave, who is coming back and when. Every Monday, the magic sheet is updated, and the goal for the District is for the number in the gray box at the bottom of the sheet to be zero. A zero means that all positions are filled, and they have enough staff.

The number there now is somewhere between 16-22. This figure represents the number of teachers needed as enrollment adjusts. Dr. Brinegar says it is very typical for BUSD to have the number 30 in the gray box toward the end of the year, as an average year would end with the need to hire 22-35 teachers. But this is not an average year with the budget in crisis. Is BUSD going to continue in Class Size reduction? Of course they are. “In three weeks, we will hire people for vacancies for next year,” Dr. Brinegar says, speaking of an upcoming recruiting fair he will attend to hire teachers for the fall. This is BUSD, after all, and for Dr. Brinegar, a quality BUSD is his charge and point of honor.