Teaching Profession

As Economy Slumps, Teachers’ Jobs in the Cross Hairs

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 02, 2008 7 min read
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Faced with high energy costs and crimped budgets, school districts have cut administrative positions, bus routes, special services, and athletics programs.

But as economic prospects worsen, the salaries and jobs of teachers are increasingly coming under green-eyeshade scrutiny.

Districts in Alabama and Florida—two states that have been hard hit because of their reliance on sales taxes to finance education—have begun to cap hiring, eliminate staff positions, and cut salaries.

In California, districts are still waiting to see how the state’s $15.2 billion deficit, the subject of an ongoing battle in the legislature, will affect the teaching force.

“Personnel costs are the overwhelming part of the expenditures in education. It is very labor-intensive,” said Gale Gaines, the vice president of state services for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, which tracks budget trends in 16 states. “Frankly, there’s only so much money that can be taken from other places.”

Tough Choices

Nationwide, teachers’ salaries and benefits make up about 80 percent of districts’ overall budgets, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Alabama relies heavily on sales tax as well as on property taxes for funding, and that has spelled trouble for several of its districts, including the 63,000-student Mobile County system.

Looking at a $16.8 million reduction for 2008-09, “there was no way we could [balance the budget] without cutting people,” said Superintendent Roy D. Nichols.

One Sign of Lean Times

The biggest item in Manatee County, Fla.’s 2008-09 district budget is salaries. The system has laid off over 100 teachers and reduced the number of paid in-service days.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Manatee County School Board

A state law required more than 1,200 employees to be notified that they would be either laid off or transferred to lower-level positions. Only 350 people ultimately lost their jobs, among them about 100 teachers, but the notices had a dampening effect on morale through the district, Mr. Nichols said.

Florida faces a shortfall of $1.5 billion this year that has affected districts across the state.

The state has no income tax, and its discretionary budget depends on tourism and other industries that have shrunk in the economic downturn. Money for K-12 education fell by about 2 percent for 2008-09, on top of a 3 percent cut last year, according to an SREB analysis.

Districts in the state frequently import new teachers from other states. Now, they are having to bid some of them farewell.

“It’s like driving your car and you’re going forward, and all of a sudden you have to put on your brakes and drive backwards while looking out of the rearview mirror,” said Peromnia Grant, the assistant superintendent of human resources for the 62,000-student Volusia County district. “It is extremely uncomfortable and very different. We’ve always been in the mode of recruiting,” Ms. Grant said of the Florida district’s decision to cut 220 nontenured teachers to make up a $45.8 million shortfall for 2008-09.

California districts don’t yet know how tight budget times will affect them—a May budget draft proposed what amounted to flat funding for education—even as they face higher proficiency targets under the No Child Left Behind Act and a new Algebra 1 requirement passed by the state board of education.

“It’s really a double whammy,” said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell. “I have a feeling districts are going to do everything in their power to keep cuts away from the classroom and preserve their teaching force, but we do know some districts are saying they are considering forgoing class-size-reduction [subsidies].”

Cost to Relationship?

In this era of accountability, districts have been reluctant to reduce instructional positions in core academic classes.

“I think most districts try to cut teachers last,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “I think they understand that cutting teachers is not going to be great if it means that achievement measured by standardized tests goes down.”

But as some districts are discovering, the alternatives to paring teaching positions can be equally contentious.

With a projected $21 million shortfall for the 2008-09 school year, the board of education for Florida’s 42,000-student Manatee County district decided to institute a 1 percent across-the-board cut of teacher salaries by reducing the number of paid in-service days. The district hoped to avoid substantial staff cuts.

“If someone loses a job now, it has a major economic impact not only on that person but on the community as a whole,” said Herb Tschappat, the assistant superintendent for district support services.

Under a state clause allowing public employers to request bargaining in times of “financial urgency,” the district hoped to gain union approval of the plan.

Local union officials, however, argued that the cut did not meet the statutory criteria for financial urgency and that it did not exhaust other options for saving money.

The Manatee Education Association did not participate in bargaining, ultimately resulting in an impasse hearing.

The matter remains unresolved, and the union has filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the state Public Employees Relations Commission.

Mr. Tschappat indicated the true cost may be the close relationship between district and union, which he credits with a bargaining process that has resulted in some of the highest new-teacher salaries in the state.

“The foundation of [interest-based bargaining] is not only to come to good agreements but to maintain good relationships. We want to do that,” he said.

State Policy Question

The reductions in force illuminate the ways in which existing state policies and seniority provisions curtail districts’ flexibility in responding nimbly to budget shortages.

In Florida, local decisions have been complicated by the state’s class-size reduction program, district officials said.

Districts are required to cap class sizes at 18 students in K-3, 22 in the middle grades, and 25 students in high schools. The state legislature suspended, for this school year, the final phase of implementation. But school-level caps remain in effect.

Ofelia San Pedro, the deputy superintendent for business operations in the 341,000-student Miami-Dade County schools, said the opening of 12 new schools to meet that mandate helped offset further teacher rollbacks, despite a declining student enrollment. So far, the district has limited cuts to about 100 physical education teachers who lack appropriate subject-matter credentials, and has found other ways to make up a $150 million shortfall.

But other districts say the mandate has limited their ability to make ends meet by raising class sizes.

“When you’re in a money crunch, not only do you have to maintain more teachers, you have to maintain a place for them,” said Mr. Tschappat of Manatee County.

Observers also raised concerns about seniority, which governs not only how teachers are compensated but how reductions in force are handled in some states.

“Newer teachers are cheaper teachers, so all things equal, you don’t want to lose a cohort of young teachers,” argued Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “Districts have gotten more conscientious about hiring than they were 10 years ago, and if you’ve put dollars and time into hiring carefully, you don’t want to take a machete and walk off with your newest hires.”

California, for instance, grants exceptions for seniority only in high-need subjects, noted Emily Cohen, a policy analyst at the National Council on Teacher Quality, which maintains a database on teacher contracts.

The 133,000-student San Diego district eliminated 204 nontenured teachers for 2008-09, although some of them are now taking temporary positions, a district official said.

Hiring Woes

The disproportionate impact on new teachers means that the advice frequently given to eager students—become a teacher, because there will always be a job waiting for you—hasn’t always been accurate in tough economic times.

Ms. Grant of Volusia County said the district suspended this year a “grow your own” program guaranteeing education majors a job if they maintained a certain grade point average. It also drastically reduced hiring, taking on teachers only in subjects where a match could not be found within the layoff pool.

“Last year, we had 334 teachers at the new-teacher breakfast in a nice hotel,” she said. “This year, we had 24 new teachers, and we had it in the conference room.”

At Florida’s annual teacher career fair, only half the districts took part because of fewer vacancies, according to Pam Stewart, the deputy chancellor for educator quality at the Florida education department.

Ms. Stewart anticipates that next year will also be tight on the hiring side. But she added that the state cannot afford to take its eye off long-term hiring issues.

“We’re on the cusp of baby boomer retirements, so we know that we are going to continue to need teachers in Florida,” she said.

In the short run, officials in the affected districts are bracing for more cuts.

Mr. Nichols of Alabama said he built some additional cushioning into this year’s staff reductions. But state officials have warned of additional prorations in the budget, he said.

“I can withstand 3 percent [in additional cuts]. If it goes beyond that, I’m in real trouble,” he said.

The situation in Florida remains grim for next year, with district officials bracing for a further reduction in sales-tax revenues.

A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as As Economy Slumps, Teachers’ Jobs in the Cross Hairs

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