Stimulus money puts teachers in layoff limbo

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

Nick Ut/AP
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 The board of education rescinded a proposed layoff of nearly 2,000 elementary school teachers, but more than 5,000 other teaching, administrative, and support positions are still slated for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.

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.

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.

Her union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has urged the district to make other cuts and use more of the stimulus money right away to save teachers' jobs. "The district is playing with people's lives," says president A.J. Duffy. "If they continue what they say they are doing, which is finding the fat, they could find the extra money," he says. The group is planning demonstrations in the coming weeks.

With a projected shortfall of $1.4 billion over the next two years, largely because of state cuts, the L.A. schools cannot avoid increasing class sizes and cutting some teachers, district leaders say. Without the stimulus, "it would have been twice as bad," says school board president Mónica García. More than 1,000 jobs are being cut from the administrative side, she notes.

The board plans to seek additional stimulus dollars that the US Department of Education will be handing out on a competitive basis to districts that pursue key reforms. "We didn't want to just preserve the status quo ... and we heard Washington say loud and clear ... 'We're going to be holding you accountable for results,' " Ms. García says.

For states to obtain one part of the stimulus designated primarily for education (called stabilization funds), they must submit an application to the US Department of Education explaining how the money will be used. California, South Dakota, and Illinois are the first states to have their applications approved. Almost $4 billion – $2.6 billion of it for K-12 – was released to California last weekend, for instance, and it can apply for another $2 billion this fall.

Three other states – Maine, Utah, and Mississippi – have sent in applications, and many more are expected to soon. The department has pledged to respond to applications within two weeks.

Van Winkle says she understands that budget cuts are necessary, but she thinks they're falling too heavily on teachers. In her school, students stay with the same teacher in sixth and seventh grades, so they "could be losing a teacher they've made a deep connection with," she says. She and many of her colleagues are hopeful that putting up a fight might save their jobs, "but it would be naive to count on that," she says. "We should start looking, but we're so attached to our school and our students that we're kind of in denial."

In Arizona, educators are waiting to see how deep state cuts will be. The Gilbert Public School district looked at a "worst-case scenario" and sent layoff notices to 267 teachers and more than 100 other staff by an April 15 deadline, says board president Thad Stump. Under this scenario, the district will need to cut $27 million for next year, a little more than 10 percent of its current budget.

Officials there hope to find savings in other areas and recall a substantial number of those teachers once the budget is finalized. But it could be late June before budget numbers come in from the state.

Hundreds of people showed up for a recent board meeting in Gilbert, including teachers, students, and parents pleading to save teachers' jobs. "There were tears, both in the audience and from the board members. I have never seen a meeting that was full of that much emotion," Mr. Stump says. But in the end, the board was unified on budget cuts and teacher layoffs. "Everybody understands that there is an economic crisis," he says.

Setting budgets based on the worst-case scenario is one way for districts to protect themselves if revenues continue to decline, but it's "a scary thing," says Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an education coalition in Washington. "Once you lay off teachers, they may not be available if you want them in the coming months."

For Andre Ravenelle, superintendent of the Fitchburg, Mass., public schools, federal money for low-income and special-education students is a major boost. But it just doesn't seem wise to count on the other portion of the stimulus – about $500,000 that his district has been told it will receive through state stabilization funds. "Either the state or the town could reduce our budget accordingly," he says.

Through a consolidation of middle schools and other cuts, he expects to reduce the district's staff by about 20 positions. To ensure that some teachers are available for rehire as jobs open up over the next few years, he hopes to create full-time substitute positions – an idea that came up in conversation with other education leaders in the state who are searching for ways to use the stimulus money without falling off a funding cliff when it disappears in two years.

The debate over how to use the state stabilization funds has been most pronounced in South Carolina, where Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has argued that the money should be used to pay down state debt. A high school senior filed a lawsuit last Thursday trying to force open the way for the legislature to spend the money on schools without the governor's approval.

"There is definitely concern that [the stimulus money] will get diffused and diluted by other political pressures within states," Mr. Kealy says.

To keep up pressure to use the money to truly improve schools, the Coalition for Student Achievement was launched last week by more than 30 education, civil rights, business, and philanthropic groups in the US.

"It's awfully hard, when you're trying to keep teachers in the classroom and school buses running, to be thinking about, 'How do I bring real reform?' But ... the public doesn't expect business as usual in any aspect of the economy," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a member of the coalition, in a conference call with reporters last week. "No one should think that coming out of the economic crisis with the same educational outcomes is a success."

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