Teacher layoff warnings subside as state budget improves

Published: Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013 - 10:30 am

Rather than suffering another March of despair, Katie Rector, a Sacramento elementary school teacher, enjoyed a celebratory dinner this month at Bandera, one of her favorite restaurants.

For the first time in her fledgling five-year career, she avoided a layoff warning she had come to expect every spring.

After struggling through years of layoffs that resulted in larger class sizes and teacher angst, California schools have started to reverse course thanks to voter-approved taxes and economic recovery.

Just before Friday's statewide deadline, 2,900 teachers received preliminary layoff notices in districts represented by the California Teachers Association, a fraction of the 22,000 educators who were told they could lose their jobs a year ago. CTA says it represents about 95 percent of K-12 teachers.

In Sacramento County, fewer than 350 teachers, school nurses and counselors received pink slips this year, far less than the 1,700 issued last year and 2,500 sent two years ago. Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said the situation has improved enough that his district may even hire this summer – despite closing seven schools – because of normal departures and retirements.

"What is different this year is that we're optimistic that attrition will eat up layoff notices and then some," Raymond said. "It could put us in the position to hire teachers."

Each year, school districts must send preliminary pink slips by March 15 to any teacher, nurse or counselor at risk of job loss once the school year ends. As a precautionary measure, districts typically send more preliminary notices than needed, because they must warn teachers well before the state finalizes school funding levels.

Since 2008, California has lost 8.5 percent of its teacher workforce, going from 310,361 to 283,836, according to the California Department of Education.

After voters approved two statewide tax hikes in November, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a budget in January that increases K-12 funding by 4 percent next school year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

"This is pretty good news," said CTA President Dean Vogel of fewer layoff notices. He said this year's pink slip estimate is on par with pre-recessionary levels.

With the state budget on firmer ground, districts finally have a good sense of what sort of funding to expect next school year, Vogel said. "They are in a much better place to determine their budgets than in years past," he said.

Rector, 28, was surprised when her supervisor told her not to expect a layoff notice.

"I very much expected it," said the teacher of a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at San Juan Unified's Thomas Edison Language Institute in Sacramento.

For each of the past four years the young teacher has received a preliminary notice in March, followed by a final notice in May. She lived with uncertainty each summer, only to be rehired just a few days before school began.

She would quickly unpack 20 boxes of supplies and equipment and set up her classroom each year.

"It was very frustrating, never knowing what is going to happen," Rector said. "I had to calm myself down. Not knowing in the summer is very, very scary."

That fear caused her family to delay buying a house for three years. After her husband, a firefighter, started a job that could support them both, the Rectors finally felt comfortable enough to buy a home last December.

This is the first year in at least five years that Elk Grove Unified – the region's largest school district – hasn't had to send out layoff notices because of budget cuts, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman.

She said the 30 pink slips being sent to teachers are due to the expiration of grant-funded positions or lower demand for some middle and high school classes. Last year the district sent 146 early warning notices to teachers.

The region's rural school districts issued only a handful of pink slips by this week's deadline. El Dorado County schools passed out fewer than 30, Yolo County schools about 17 and Placer County schools about 50, according to county education officials.

"Our county overall has had very few layoffs compared to previous years," said Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, superintendent of Placer County schools.

"Hopefully, public education funding has bottomed out in regard to cutting teachers and programs," she added. "Hopefully, we are beginning to build back."

Despite the good news, school leaders warn that the state's education system isn't out of the financial woods yet.

Raymond said there are "reasons to be cautiously optimistic," but that uncertainty surrounding the governor's proposed school funding overhaul, volatile state revenues and federal sequester-related cuts cloud the outlook.

"Stay tuned," he said.

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/. The Bee's Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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