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Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as Pink Slips: Fear and Loathing In California

Pink Slips: Fear and Loathing In California

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It should be a joyous time for 5th grade teacher Joann Casella. She's getting married this week, and she and her fiancé, also a teacher, have spent months carefully planning their future lives together.

But when they received layoff notices last month from California's San Juan Unified School District, those plans were thrown off course.

Instead of focusing on wedding preparations, the couple attended meetings last week about the potential layoffs to get a sense of whether their jobs will exist next year. Neither of them has tenure. Ironically, they had waited until they felt set in their careers before making plans to get married.

"It's overwhelming," Ms. Casella said. "We want to think about buying a house and all the things married people do, and all of a sudden our world is turned upside down."

State teachers' union officials say that Ms. Casella and many other educators are being swept into a political drama by districts that subjects them to unnecessary stress and uncertainty.

Districts across this cash-strapped state handed out more than 20,000 preliminary layoff notices to teachers last month, in accordance with a state law that requires a notice by March 15 for any tenured teacher whose job might be cut for the next school year.

But not every district handles the notification policy the same way. Some districts went so far as to give all their teachers notices, while others refused to give any, in anticipation of a legal challenge to state cuts.

The California Teachers' Association, the state's largest teachers' union, contends that districts are abusing the process and creating chaos by deliberately inflating the numbers of teachers who might be cut.

Officials with the CTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, believe the layoff notices are ploys to scare teachers into accepting cuts to their salaries and health-care benefits.

"It's reached the point of absurdity," said Wayne Johnson, the CTA's president. "Obviously, these are just political games—[districts] can't lay off every one of their teachers. There's not enough teachers in the state."

He said he had seen some districts, including some of the needy urban districts that have struggled to find enough teachers to fill their classrooms, hand out hundreds of pink slips. At the same time, he said, some of those districts were continuing to hold out-of-state recruitment fairs.

Many educators are worried that the pink-slip process—and the publicity surrounding the districts' moves—will discourage qualified teachers from applying for jobs in the state, and may discourage some future teachers as well.

"It's having a horrifying effect on morale," said Fred Glass, the communications director for the California Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "The first- or second- year teachers are the first to get dumped, and that has a terrible effect on their morale and their careers."

'Pure Necessity'

District officials defend their actions. They say they have no choice but to give out so many notices to protect themselves in a worst-case scenario.

Right now, the state has a $35 billion budget deficit and is giving districts no indication of how much—and when—their budgets might be cut. The districts have until May 15 to issue final layoffs to tenured teachers, but teachers with emergency certification and teachers with less than three years' classroom experience can be laid off without notice.

"The reality is that districts have one point in time during each school year by law to issue layoff notices for the subsequent school year," said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials. "If those notices are not provided, the districts have zero flexibility when faced with cuts, so it's purely a sense of fiscal responsibility."

Layoff notices "are the toughest, most difficult decisions a district can make—they don't go into this for political strategy, it's out of pure necessity," Mr. Gordon added.

Julia E. Koppich, an education researcher and teacher-policy expert based in San Francisco, said that districts are "between a rock and a hard place."

"From what I've seen, districts are being judicious," she said. "In the end, it will likely be folks without permanent credentials and those with only one year of experience" who are cut.

'Avalanche of Pink Slips'

It is easy to see, though, how the pink slips—or the threats of pink slips—also can become a rallying point for students and parents who see the notices as a direct threat to the future of their schools.

In some areas of California, students have protested the potential layoffs. At least two high schools have reported student walkouts in opposition to possible teacher cuts. Parents elsewhere have brought placards and picketed school board meetings.

And it's not just a California issue.

In New York state, teachers are protesting a proposal to cut $1.7 billion in education funding from the state budget. The New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, estimates that move would result in thousands of laid-off teachers, aides, and other staff members.

A union press release forecasts an "avalanche of pink slips."

"Losing 20,000 educators isn't the best plan for helping students succeed," NYSUT President Thomas Y. Hobart Jr. said at a rally of the union's members last week.

Here in California, where the pink slips already are going out, the teachers with the least seniority face an agonizing wait.

Ms. Casella, for one, is waiting until the May 15 deadline for final notices to decide whether to apply to other districts.

"I'm thinking, 'Am I going to have to go back to waitressing?' " she said.

Some administrators are finding creative ways to raise staff members' morale.

Kathy Poloni- Disario, the principal of the elementary school where Ms. Casella teaches, organized a March 15 "happy hour" at a steakhouse to lift the spirits of the four teachers there who received layoff notices. They donned fuzzy pink houseshoes for the occasion. "It was a nice time," Ms. Poloni-Disario said. "It was more of a time where we could sit and laugh and try to lighten the situation, because it is devastating."

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 20-21

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