How Layoffs Upend Life for Educators, Students, and Districts
Thousands of educators have been laid off already, as school districts scramble to make up the money lost from the coronavirus-caused recession, and experts say more will come. The layoffs have upended the lives of teachers, administrators, and students. Here are a few of their stories:
'Reduced to a Line Item in a Budget’
Third grade teacher Jami Witherell considered Newton Elementary School in Greenfield, Mass., to be her “Disney World” of elementary schools. She loves her students and the community and was honored last fall by “Good Morning America” as an “inspiring teacher.” But early last month, she received a letter from her school district saying that she had been let go.
Witherell started teaching at Newton in 2013, but she resigned last year to help care for her mother, who had breast cancer. When she came back to Newton in January, she had lost her seniority. Six months later, with Greenfield public schools reeling from coronavirus-inflicted budget cuts, she was laid off alongside about a dozen other educators in the district. In total, 43 educator jobs were cut due to layoffs, retirements, and vacancies—two dozen of which were teaching positions.
“It came as a big surprise,” Witherell said. “We are hoping we get recalled, but with the budgets the way they are, with remote learning on the table, we just don’t know what positions will be available.”
Superintendent Jordana Harper told the Greenfield Recorder last month that she had to lay off staff after the city council voted to approve a school budget that was $1.7 million less than what she had proposed. “To get to the mayor’s budget, I did what I needed to do,” she said. “And we have no idea yet what we’ll see from the state in funding.”
Witherell said administrators told her not to apply anywhere else because they want to hire her back in the fall, but she says she can’t just wait and see. Instead, she’s been applying to other teaching jobs nearby—only to find many job postings that are available “pending funding.”
“It’s terrifying, in a way,” she said. “I’m going to have to say yes to a job that doesn’t really even exist yet? I have to hope they get the funding for that. That feels really unstable. … I think the pandemic itself has brought on a lot of unsureness. … This would be adding to the boiling feeling of, ‘Does anyone know what’s going on?’”
At a virtual school board meeting after the news of the layoffs, parents spoke in support of Witherell, whom they described as a caring, creative teacher who had raised tens of thousands of dollars for the school through DonorsChoose.
“I can’t believe you have let go of the love, kindness, [and] diversity she poured into our students,” said one parent. Witherell, who is Chilean, was one of the only teachers of color in the school building, even though about 40 percent of students are students of color.
“She has compassion and she’s passionate,” another parent said. “She's a teacher that someone remembers for life.”
But despite their pleas for the district to reconsider, Witherell is still job-hunting. She’s also missing her students and is mourning the potential loss of a tightknit school community.
“When you’re part of a family, it feels a little personal even when I know it’s not,” Witherell said, adding that teachers are people who “really dig deep into the trenches and work with students, regardless of what’s facing us. … To be reduced to a line item in a budget is a challenging thing to swallow.”
‘Students Are Going to Need More Support’
When students in Tacoma, Wash., return to school this fall—for at least a couple days of in-person instruction—many familiar faces won’t be there.
The 30,000-student school district laid off 86 of its more than 600 paraeducators last month. The district also notified nearly 350 more paraeducators that their hours would be reduced or their schedules would be changed. The decision was not driven by budget cuts, officials said, but rather was based on how many students district leaders estimate will be in school buildings at once.
“We do not know what school will look like in the fall,” the district said in a statement. “We had to make our best estimate based on what we know now. And what we know as of today, … is full-time face-to-face learning as we traditionally know it will not occur in the fall.”
Still, Glory Tichy, the president of the Tacoma Federation of Paraeducators, said she doesn’t understand the motivation for this decision. Students, she said, will be coming back to school after being home for six months, and many will be struggling with anxieties and other challenges that stem from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting changes to their routines.
“The part that’s hard to swallow is we feel as though students are going to need more support than ever,” she said. “They’re going to need all the support that’s available to them.”
The school board’s decision to lay off the paraeducators spurred a lot of criticism from families and staff. The president of the board announced this month that he would step down, three years before his current term ends, to spend more time with his family. The district did not return Education Week’s request for comment.
Out of the 345 paraeducators who are still employed but had their hours reduced, 104 are no longer eligible for health insurance due to the reductions, Tichy said.
“It’s putting a lot of folks into a really difficult place,” she said. “As paraeducators, we don’t make a lot of money, but we do what we do because we love it.”
But now, paraeducators will have to weigh whether to stay in the school with their reduced hours or find another job. Other paraeducators whose schedules have been changed are frustrated at the thought of being reassigned from a job they might have held for years, Tichy said.
“We have one-on-one paraeducators who have put in years with the same student and have watched those students grow, watched those students make progress in and out of the classroom,” she said. “They [now] have to make a decision: Is this job worth my time to stay on? … That’s a devastating decision for folks.”
‘Less Time to Be Creative and Make Music’
Earlier this summer, the superintendent of the Yonkers school district on the Hudson River in New York came to his principals with an upsetting request: Provide me a list of the positions in your school that can be eliminated.
Facing a $22 million budget gap, the 27,000-student school district had to eliminate 74 positions. About half of those came through retirements and vacancies, but three dozen teachers were laid off.
Among them was Colette Hebert, who taught general music for grades pre-K-8. She’s upset about losing her job, she said, but she’s also worried about the ramifications the job losses will have on children. Five music teachers were laid off, and several other music teachers retired, she said, leaving a gaping hole in the district’s music program.
Already, she said, most music teachers were split between two schools and had, on average, about 1,000 students. They saw students once a week for 30 minutes, and that was all the music education students got.
“I think it’s going to make the music education program deteriorate even more,” Hebert said. “With [fewer] teachers, they’re definitely going to have less instruction and less time to be creative and make music. Coming out of COVID, those are the classes kids need—they need to be creative, they need an outlet.”
A spokeswoman for the district said principals had to make tough choices about which positions to eliminate, and layoffs were based on seniority. Hebert said that while the music teachers who were laid off had only been in the Yonkers district for a few years, they were all veteran educators.
“It’s not like we don’t know what we’re doing—we’ve been able to advocate for our program,” she said. “We know what instruction kids should have. Kids, especially our kids, need music.”
Many students in the Yonkers school district come from low-income families, and Hebert said music can be the “hook” for them to learn to love school.
For their last assignments this school year, the music teachers who received layoff notices asked students to write a response imagining their life without music. One of Hebert’s 8th graders wrote, “Music is what makes us enjoy life. Without music, there is no real me, no creativity.”
One of her kindergartners wrote, “Without music my life would just be sad.”
‘I Technically Laid Myself Off’
Superintendent Bob Behnke has always been conscious of how vital his public school system is to Adrian, a tiny college town in southeastern Michigan enveloped by thousands of acres of farmland.
When the county’s pandemic-induced unemployment rate last month crested at 30 percent, Behnke, whose school district is the area’s third-largest employer, brought an unusual proposal to his school board: In order to avoid layoffs, the board should slash his pay and his cabinet’s pay by 40 percent, cut his IT department’s pay by 60 percent, and furlough the entire central office this summer.
“I technically laid myself off,” he said, referring to the legal process his board had to take when it scrapped his contract, along with its merit pay and annual raise set to soon kick in, and approved a new contract that paid him to work only three days a week this summer. “The last thing I want to do is lay off mass numbers of employees. It’d have a trickle-down effect on the welfare of this community.”
Adrian’s budget-cutting scenario, which has played out in a series of emotional school board meetings, union negotiations, and cabinet meetings, illustrates the lengths districts will go to avoid layoffs, especially in areas where it’s hard to recruit and retain teachers.
The district relies heavily on state aid and in May, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told school officials that the state faces a $2.2 billion shortfall and is considering cutting almost $1 billion out of its K-12 spending.
For Adrian, it meant that the superintendent would have to cut $1.8 million out of his $33 million budget.
Any layoffs to his 195-member teaching staff, Behnke said, could academically ruin a 2,800-student district like Adrian, which is more than one-third Latino, 6 percent Black, and more than two-thirds impoverished.
“We’re a small district to begin with, and everything that we know about this virus is, we know we need to do whatever we can to maintain that relationship between the teacher and the student,” Behnke said. “That’s whether it’s face-to-face when we return or virtual.”
He and his cabinet set a goal of keeping staffing mostly intact. But in order to do so, everyone would have to make concessions, he told them.
Last month, after months of negotiating with all six of the district’s unions, Behnke brought a budget to the board that would freeze all unionized workers’ pay; forego new textbooks purchases, building maintenance, and technology upgrades; and eliminate custodial services for the entire district in July.
The idea to so drastically cut the pay of central office staff, the only employees in the district not unionized, was a financial one—it saved the district $100,000, about the salary and benefits of one teacher in the district—but also a symbolic one, he said.
“I asked my team, from our end of things, what can we do to help prevent cuts that would impact the classroom?” said Behnke, who’s spent his time in recent weeks figuring out how he’s going to afford personal protective equipment for the coming school year, attending Black Lives Matter rallies in front of his high school, and growing zucchini, broccoli, and tomatoes in his garden.
So far, the district has only laid off a theater manager in the high school’s drama department.
“My teachers know they’re going to be employed next year,” he said.
—Daarel Burnette II
When Layoffs and Equity Concerns Collide
Tucked in the June school board agenda was a recommendation that “shocked” the Madison, Wis., districts’ teachers: After decades of laying teachers off in order of their hiring date, administrators wanted permission to lay off teachers based on merit, certifications, and whether or not they’ve completed cultural competency courses.
Their reasoning: With a looming $8 million budget deficit, the unionized district’s last on, first out layoff policy would wipe out the progress administrators had made in the last five years recruiting and retaining teachers of color.
Minority teachers make up only 13 percent of the district’s workforce, up 3 percent in the last decade. Black and Latino students make up more than half of the student body.
“Over the last 10 years, our district has gone from being a majority white district to a majority Black and brown district, and yet our teaching force doesn’t reflect that shift,” said Savion Castro, the school board’s treasurer, who supports altering the district’s layoff policy. “That’s a pretty big mismatch.”
Research shows that, in districts that lay off by seniority, more teachers are laid off at schools that have majority Black and Latino students, and poor schools. And a transient teaching force can have a long-lasting impact on student outcomes.
While many state legislatures during the last recession got rid of statewide last on, first out policies, the vast majority of districts have yet to change their own policies, said Chad Aldeman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners.
Madison’s proposed change to the district’s layoff policy was tabled in June and is currently being negotiated with the administration.
The union opposes the changes. Edward A. Sadlowski, the union’s executive director, said seniority is a systematic, transparent, and objective approach to laying teachers off. The real issue, he said, is the administration’s inability to retain teachers of color. A layoff process based on merit will subject teachers of color to subjective performance reviews that, he said, historically have not favored teachers of color.
“They’re trying to call seniority racist,” said Sadlowski, who agrees that the teaching force isn’t diverse enough. “It’s the most unbiased thing there is. They’re just using this to drive a wedge between young teachers of color and the union.”
The district also wants to give just 30 days notice to teachers at risk of losing their jobs, a move Sadlowski said will lead to a lawsuit. Currently, teachers’ contracts prevent them from being laid off mid-year.
Five years ago, Madison’s administration made an aggressive push to recruit more teachers of color, including reaching out to historically Black colleges and universities and pushing the University of Wisconsin’s school of education to diversify its student body.
The district has made progress, administrators have said, but there’s still plenty of work to do.
Twenty-seven out of 31 of its elementary schools don’t have a single Black teacher. The few Black teachers the district has are now at risk of losing their jobs, administrators have said.
“Having these staff members always be subject to movement within the district does not create a good environment for retention,” administrators said in a memo attached to June’s recommendation.
The issue is a pressing one. Without a congressional infusion of cash, Wisconsin’s legislature anticipates possibly having to cut more than $870 million out of its budget this fiscal year. Madison would have to make even more drastic cuts if voters don’t renew the district’s property tax this fall.
Said Castro: “I don’t like that we’re in the position where student equity is based on whether our district has to make layoffs.”
The district on Monday, July 13, hired Carlton Jenkins, its first black superintendent.
—Daarel Burnette II
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