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Stimulus money puts teachers in layoff limbo

Funds trickle out, leaving many state and local education budgets in flux.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2009

Matthew Horowitz, a teacher at the Metropolitan Skills Center in Los Angeles, protested outside the school district's budget meeting last week. The board of education rescinded a proposed layoff of nearly 2,000 elementary school teachers, but more than 5,000 other teaching, administrative, and support positions are still slated for elimination.

Nick Ut/AP

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An unprecedented $100 billion in federal stimulus money is starting to flow to school districts. Educators welcome the aid, but with most districts just starting to get estimates of how much they'll receive, it's adding complexity to an already confusing budget cycle.

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Particularly challenging – and emotional – are decisions about how many teachers' jobs to fund for next year.

Deadlines have been coming up for renewing contracts, yet many state and local education budgets are in flux. That's putting tens of thousands of teachers into layoff limbo.

In some cases, jobs have already been saved. But pink slips are also going out, even as district leaders hope a good number of those jobs can be salvaged in time for the new school year.

A look at several states and school districts sheds light on the tension between multiple goals for the stimulus money – saving jobs, reforming education, and avoiding becoming too dependent on a funding stream due to dry up in two years.

"Nobody's ever seen a raft of new money like that [for education] ... so people have had a hard time figuring out what to do," says Bruce Hunter, an associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) in Arlington, Va.

In some states, such as California, the stimulus money won't be enough to offset budget shortfalls. "The problem now is the state revenue estimates keep dropping," Mr. Hunter says. "It has made it nearly impossible to plan ... so people have handed out a lot of layoff notices."

An AASA survey found that 44 percent of school districts planned to lay off staff for 2009-10. The survey was taken in March – after the stimulus legislation had passed, but before school districts could know details.

Absent the stimulus, the number of K-12 jobs lost by 2011 would probably total about 574,000 – 9 percent of the field, according to a February analysis by University of Washington professor Marguerite Roza.

It will be a while before anyone knows how many school jobs the stimulus really saves. But in Los Angeles, it has already spared some teachers. The school board voted last week to rescind nearly 2,000 layoff notices that had gone out to elementary school teachers in March.

But more than 5,000 other teaching, administrative, and support positions are still slated for elimination.

One of those jobs is Julie Van Winkle's. She's a math and science teacher at the John H. Liechty Middle School, and with five years of experience, she's a mentor to other teachers. But because she taught at a charter school for several years, her seniority clock started over when she returned to the district this year.

"It's frustrating because ... there aren't a lot of teachers whose first choice is to teach middle school ... particularly in this community," where most of the students come from low-income families, Ms. Van Winkle says.

Because so many teachers at her school are relatively new, about 70 percent received termination notices from the district. "It could really change the whole culture at our school," she says.

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