Teaching Profession

Budget-Driven Personnel Shifts Pressure Districts

By Sean Cavanagh — August 30, 2011 8 min read
Michelle Rodriguez works with students in her 8th grade English class at Rayburn Middle School in San Antonio.

When the budget-cutting ended this year in one rural North Texas school district, the people-moving began.

Forced to chop its total staff to 55 employees from 64, the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent school system went the route of many districts across the country: It made the majority of its reductions by encouraging early retirements and not filling open positions.

But then the 377-student school system had to cover the assignments of the people who had left. And doing so required some imagination.

A retired elementary school principal was replaced by a counselor. The counselor was replaced by a middle school English teacher. The middle school teacher was replaced by a 5th grade teacher. And on it went.

Nationwide, districts of all sizes are making significant cuts to personnel through layoffs, or, as is the case in Perrin-Whitt, through attrition. But job losses and eliminated positions have overshadowed one of the less obvious effects of those reductions on school systems: They are being forced to move a substantial portion of their workforces into different positions and roles, to make up for vacancies.

In some cases, the mixing and matching occurs because administrators must fill openings in core academic areas, and budget cuts prevent them from bringing in new employees. District leaders also have another motive: They want to give their employees the chance to keep their jobs—even if not the same jobs they had last year—rather than laying them off, now or later.

“Your goal [is] to avoid having to make a hire,” said John Kuhn, the superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt district, an hour northwest of Dallas. “You have to get creative to make that happen sometimes. ... It’s not ideal, but you’re not going to get ideal in these budget times.”

Increased Churn

An internal churning of staff occurs every year in school systems, district officials and experts on school operations say. But some district leaders and other observers believe the jumping around has increased in the wake of recent state and local budget cuts made during the Great Recession and its prolonged aftermath.

The financial pressure may not let up anytime soon. Sixty-five percent of superintendents surveyed recently by the American Association of School Administrators said they cut jobs last academic year. And nearly three-quarters predicted they would do so this school year, with about half those cuts coming in teaching positions, according to the survey, which drew 1,000 respondents from 49 states.

Perrin-Whitt Elementary School Principal Amy Salazar gets a hug from a kindergartner. Ms. Salazar was a counselor and became principal of the school, which has undergone considerable turnover in the wake of budget cuts.

Nearly two dozen states already have made education cuts in fiscal 2012. This summer, Texas lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry approved a $172 billion two-year budget that provided schools with $4 billion less than had been required by the state’s funding formula to account for growth in student enrollment and other factors. While district officials around the state originally feared that they would fall short by as much as $10 billion, the final numbers still will have an impact in systems like Perrin-Whitt.

Earlier this year, as the prospect of deep state cuts took hold, Mr. Kuhn and other district officials began scouring through their employees’ records to determine the areas in which they were certified, and who could change jobs, given the likelihood of having to cut payroll and personnel.

The superintendent offered employees monetary incentives for early retirement, which a few of them took. In the end, he was forced to lay off just two employees. Teachers and other workers were moved from job to job, and Mr. Kuhn hired two elementary math teachers from outside to fill positions that he couldn’t internally. All the people he moved, the superintendent said, were certified for their new positions.

But certification aside, moving staff members is neither simple nor easy, acknowledges Mr. Kuhn, who pointed to the “fruit basket” of reassignments at the district’s elementary school, brought about by cuts.

When the previous elementary school principal retired, Amy Salazar, who was working as a counselor in the district, moved into that role. Ms. Salazar, a native of the community who had aspired to become an administrator, says she was happy to make the move. But in trying to reassign teachers in the face of budget cuts, she faced plenty of challenges.

When her 4th grade teacher resigned, that teacher was replaced by a 3rd grade educator. A specialized math-instruction program was canceled, and its teacher was made a 3rd grade teacher. Shortly before school began, a 5th and 6th grade social studies teacher resigned, and was replaced by a 3rd grade teacher. A 2nd grade teacher was moved to 3rd grade. An art and music teacher moved to 2nd grade, and the art and music program was dropped.

The school’s teachers will face new challenges: Class sizes will rise from an average of 12 or 13 students to as high as 21, though some will remain relatively small, the principal says.

“Every teacher has a different strength,” Ms. Salazar said. “You’ve got to know your teachers—what teacher is stronger in math and science? What teacher could teach a pullout class?”

Budget cuts are heaping more work on some educators, like Lloyd Tucker, a high school science teacher. When a fellow science teacher retired and was not replaced, Mr. Tucker was asked to teach six classes instead of four, adding physics, which he hadn’t taught before, in addition to handling other assignments throughout the school day. Mr. Tucker, who was a chemist before he went into teaching, also coaches several sports throughout the year, including football, which takes time before and after school this fall.

“All of our schedules have really changed,” he said of his colleagues. “Everybody’s feeling the pressure.”

It’s common for school districts, and other employers with budget cuts, to try to reduce staff through attrition, rather than layoffs, because attrition brings less disruption and personal turmoil, said Marguerite Roza, who is on leave as a research associate professor at the University of Washington.

The process followed in Perrin-Whitt, in which supervisors review personnel records and try to find an appropriate fit for teachers and others is also typical, she added.

In some districts, superintendents who know cuts are coming will try to give teachers sufficient warning so that they can try to obtain the certification necessary to change positions, said Ms. Roza, who is serving as a senior economic and data adviser at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ideally, districts would not use seniority as the basis for their decisions about which teachers change jobs, but rather go by which teachers are “the best fit to meet student needs,” she said. (Mr. Kuhn says seniority did not play a role in his district’s decisions.) In her past research, Ms. Roza has concluded that protecting school employees from layoffs based on seniority worsens the impact of job losses by forcing districts to cut a larger pool of less expensive workers.

Large-District Impact

The challenges created by reassigning staff members are also evident in a much larger Texas school system, the 97,500 Northside Independent district, in San Antonio.

Heading into this academic year, the district, which has about 13,000 employees, cut 973 positions through attrition. The reductions have affected teachers, counselors, administrators, maintenance workers, computer specialists, and library assistants, among others, Superintendent John M. Folks said.

Northside Independent is growing rapidly, by about 3,000 students a year, which normally would require it to add about 120 teaching positions, Mr. Folks said. Instead, the district has frozen most hires, except for jobs in which the school system had to bring someone on board to fill a specific need.

Officials in Northside, which has a biennial budget of about $1.3 billion, estimate they will lose $90 million in revenues over two years because of state cuts.

Mr. Folks, who once served as state schools chief in Oklahoma, said he had two main goals in making the reductions: to avoid weakening classroom instruction and to save jobs. He noted that the district, in trying to accommodate its rapid growth, recently hired 400 teachers, and he did not want to put those new employees, or anyone else, in the unemployment line.

“It’s people’s jobs. It’s their income,” Mr. Folks said. “We’re a large district, but most people would tell you, we’re a family-oriented district, and we said, we’ve got to take care of one another. And that’s exactly what we tried to accomplish.”

Providing Support

Mr. Folks said district administrators have talked to principals and asked them to support teachers who are taking on new jobs this year—particularly if they haven’t worked in a classroom in a few years.

Unlike in Perrin-Whitt, Northside employees with the most seniority were given priority in avoiding transfers to different positions. Mr. Folks said he understood the sacrifice that many employees were making—which in some cases involved taking a salary cut.

One of those was Michelle Rodriguez, 32. Last year, she served as a middle school special education teacher, working primarily with children with behavioral and emotional problems, often in groups of three to five.

In the middle of the year, Ms. Rodriguez was given a job as a high school counselor—a career goal of hers. But around the end of the school year, in the wake of budget cuts, she said the district asked her to go back to teaching. Now she’s back working in special education—but also teaches English/language arts, which she hadn’t done before.

“It’s a little scary,” she said. “I feel like I’m starting over. I’m going into a new content area, and I don’t know it 100 percent. I want to know it 100 percent.”

The move will also cost her money: Ms. Rodriguez estimates she will make about $1,400 less in her current teaching job than her old teaching job—and about $3,500 less than she would have made as a counselor. The loss of that money hurts. She and her husband have a daughter who has costly medical needs.

But Ms. Rodriguez said she is grateful to have a job, and she’s grateful to the district for trying to help her, even though her transition is a tough one.

“When this is presented to anyone, we all go through the same things. Your heart falls through your stomach,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

At the same time, she said, “I got into education to help kids, and I’m going to take all of these opportunities and become a better teacher. ... My heart’s in teaching, either as a teacher, or a counselor.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Budget Pressures Churn Workforce

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