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Published in Print: November 16, 2005, as Teachers’ Jobs in Hurricane-Ravaged Areas in Limbo

Teachers’ Jobs in Hurricane-Ravaged Areas in Limbo

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Devastated Gulf Coast districts have begun reopening schools and re-employing teachers who were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But with student-enrollment numbers changing daily, many administrators remain uncertain about how many teachers and other staff members they will need, at least initially.

Many districts have been waiting for word of financial aid from either the state or federal government to help determine how many jobs might be filled and how long districts that have yet to reopen could pay benefits for their displaced workers. Some districts, anticipating that more teachers will return than they will need, are talking of layoffs and early-retirement incentives.

In the meantime, most of the displaced teachers face the possibility of losing their health-insurance benefits in the next few weeks, unless they have been re-employed or found jobs elsewhere.

Union officials in Louisiana say that most teachers there are ready to return to their previous jobs, if they have the chance.

“There’s the potential that even the good news of [schools] being opened could turn into sad news if teachers are going to be displaced [from their jobs],” said Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers state affiliate that represents teachers in hurricane-battered New Orleans and surrounding districts. “There are teachers who want to come back, but you have to have a job to come back to.”

The long-term financial impact on districts that have seen much of their tax base—homes that provide property taxes and businesses that provide revenues—swept away is a grave concern for many officials. ("Hurricanes Blow Holes in School Revenues," this issue.)

In the short term, district administrators are finding it difficult to re-employ teachers and plan for the coming months when the numbers of students they serve are in flux.

“It’s constantly changing all the time, and it’s just one of those things we have to deal with,” said Pete Jabbia, the assistant superintendent for human resources for the St. Tammany Parish, La., district, which reopened Oct. 3.

“There will be a point in time,” he added, “where we have to say, ‘We are making a decision based on these numbers.’ ”

Health-Insurance Shift

Most of the districts with teachers in limbo are in Louisiana. By far the largest affected area, New Orleans, also has the most uncertain outlook. City and state leaders have sparred over who will control the district, with Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco requesting that the state legislature give her office control over the troubled school system.

The district has promised employees that they will keep their health insurance through the end of this month, but benefits will be drastically reduced under a new plan beginning in December. That plan will cover only catastrophic costs and require employees to pay for at least the first $5,000 of their health-care costs.

City leaders, aiming to reopen some schools soon, are planning to turn about a dozen schools in the Algiers section, one of the least-damaged areas, into a charter district. There, administrators and teachers would be hired without regard to seniority or experience, said Steve Alschuler, a spokesman for Alvarez & Marsal, the New York City firm that is overseeing the district’s management.

Mr. Alschuler said that current plans call for regular public schools outside the charter district to be staffed in accordance with union guidelines, but that no timetable has been set for reopening those other schools. About 4,000 students and 3,000 workers, many of whom are teachers, have indicated that they would like to return, he said. Before the hurricane, the district employed about 4,500 teachers.

“We’re looking to open schools as soon as possible,” Mr. Alschuler said. “It will be a small number of schools.”

The LFT is skeptical of the charter-district plan. While his members do not oppose the concept of charter schools, Mr. Monaghan said, they are concerned that the schools will not operate as well because teachers will not take part in setting up the charters and will not have “buy-in” on their schools’ missions and ideas.

Early-Retirement Offers

In St. Tammany, district officials are offering an early-retirement plan for teachers and administrators, beginning at the end of this semester, because they worry that they will have too many staff members on hand next spring, when students from other districts go back to their regular schools.

Extra teachers are being used now as substitutes in the district, Assistant Superintendent Jabbia said. About 65 teachers resigned, retired, or went on long-term leave after Hurricane Katrina, and the previously 36,000-student district so far has not had to institute any layoffs, he added. The district’s enrollment has dropped by about 3,000, and hundreds of those who enrolled after Hurricane Katrina struck in late August, displacing them from their homes, eventually may transfer back to their previous schools.

The early-retirement plan, expected to be made final next month, would offer $6,000 to teachers and $7,500 to administrators, on top of their pensions. If layoffs occur, the district will follow its contract with the teachers’ union and give notice first to teachers in temporary positions, then those with the least seniority, Mr. Jabbia said.

The St. Bernard Parish district, which used an “acts of God” clause to cancel its contract with the teachers’ union, planned to register returning students last week. But like many districts, it was in limbo as far as re- employment and layoffs.

“Truthfully, we may have two children, or we may have 200,” Doris Voltier, the superintendent of the St. Bernard schools, wrote in a letter to district employees late last month. “We have no idea at this point, and cannot begin to project our staffing needs.”

In Mississippi, districts are not allowed to lay off teachers until the end of the academic year. While all the districts affected by the hurricanes have reopened, some officials are worried that they will have to borrow money to continue paying the teachers’ and others’ salaries, and that they will have to eventually cut jobs.

“We have to make it through this year, even if we have to borrow the money, which we may have to do as soon as next month,” said Carrolyn Hamilton, the superintendent of the Long Beach district. “We’re hoping the federal government will pass some bills and provide us with some of the money we’ve lost from taxes.”

Her district has seen enrollment drop from about 3,200 students before Katrina to about 2,750 now. All but four teachers returned.

Meanwhile, some teachers who evacuated New Orleans for less-damaged surrounding areas are settling into new places and new jobs. In the St. Charles Parish district, 40 teachers were hired after Hurricane Katrina—15 to handle the influx of new students and 25 to replace other teachers who left the area for personal reasons.

The St. Charles district, which had about 10,000 students before the hurricanes, required those new teachers to sign one-year contracts, and district officials helped them find housing. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought trailers to park on a school site for the 22 teachers who had not yet found permanent housing.

Rochelle Cancienne, the district’s director of public information, said several teachers who had been staying with friends or co-workers were also bringing in members of their families who had not yet found places to live.

“They are just so happy now to have some private space,” she said. “It’s not the Taj Mahal, but it will be theirs.”

Vol. 25, Issue 10, Pages 3,17

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