Teaching Profession

National Slide Into Pink Slip Purgatory Has Consequences

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 31, 2011 6 min read
Fourth grade teacher Monica Iñiguez has received three pink slips in the six years she's worked for the Los Angeles school district. Her husband has also received a layoff notice. She is a co-organizer of a silent protest to pink slips that includes lining up empty chairs with photos of all Noble Avenue Elementary teachers who received layoff warnings.
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This year was not the first in which Monica Iñiguez, a 4th grade teacher at Noble Avenue Elementary, in Los Angeles, received a pink slip.

But it is the first year that her husband, a teacher in a nearby middle school, also received a pink slip, the first year they’ve been in escrow on a house, and the first year she has doubts about whether teachers will agree to furloughs to stave off cuts, as they have in prior years.

And she is concerned about the frustration of her colleagues at her school, located in the heavily Latino North Hills neighborhood: Nearly half the school’s 52 teachers have received pink slips.

The situation has made it hard to keep morale up in the 1,200-student school, where teachers attribute recent increases in student achievement to teamwork, long hours, and hard work.

“Last week, I had a moment where we had to have a grade-level meeting, and I really didn’t want to be there,” Ms. Iñiguez said. “I thought, why am I going to go through all this data analysis if I’m not going to be there in the fall?”

For the teachers who receive them, pink slips mark entry into a purgatory of sorts, in which they wait to see whether they are ultimately to lose their jobs—a decision sometimes made weeks or months later. The warnings of prospective layoffs are generally required by state law and sometimes by local collective bargaining agreements; they are intended to give teachers adequate notice that they may need to search for other employment.

Layoff-Notice Calendars

Either through state legislation or collective bargaining agreements, districts must meet specified deadlines in sending pink slips to teachers.

RED Nontenured teachers only
LIGHT BLUE Tenured teachers only
GREEN Not specified

1 Nevada, Rhode Island
15 California, Oregon, Wisconsin
16 Alaska

10 Oklahoma
15 Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
30 Iowa, Ohio

1 Arkansas, Kansas
1st Monday West Virginia
15 Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, North Carolina
25 Idaho

1 Montana
15 Massachusetts

1 Minnesota

60 days before end of school year
Illinois, Michigan, Utah

45 days before end of school year

30 days’ notice
New York

14 days before end of school year
New Mexico

Last day of school year
Alaska, Alabama

Decided Locally
Colorado, Florida

No state policy
Arizona, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania

SOURCE: National Council on Teacher Quality

But the stories like those of the teachers at Noble Avenue Elementary provide insight into some of the pink slips’ side effects on teaching and learning.

Finding Funding

“What has increasingly been the case is so many people get pink slips, no one knows who or how many will get laid off,” said Michael P. Griffith, an education funding analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “Its usefulness to teachers has diminished.”

Far more reports of pink slips are on the horizon, as more-conservative state legislatures advance tighter budgets, and the federal economic-stimulus aid that has helped preserve school spending dries up.

In practice, the number of pink slips a district sends out is rarely identical to the number of teachers who will actually be laid off. Though primarily meant to warn teachers, pink slips have also been used as a policy tool by various education leaders to pressure action by districts, teachers’ unions, or voters to find additional sources of cash to save jobs, Mr. Griffith said.

Their effect appears to be particularly acute in states such as California, where state law requires districts to send pink slips in March—long before state and local education budgets are final. Districts must make pessimistic estimates or risk being out of compliance with the state code or bargaining agreements.

“The effect [the practice has] had is to force districts to be über-careful, but it does create some panic in the districts,” said Emily Cohen, the director of district policy for the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group.

That is certainly the case in Providence, R.I., where the school district recently sent each of its 1,925 teachers a pink slip. The district, which made the decisions at the direction of Mayor Angel Tavares, cited budget flexibility as its reason. But the decision brought a swift response from the president of the Providence Teachers’ Union, Steve Smith.

“I think the mayor doesn’t realize how damaging it is to the relationship with teachers,” Mr. Smith said. The city recently won plaudits for the collaborative efforts on a new teacher-evaluation system and school turnarounds between Mr. Smith and Tom Brady, the schools superintendent, who tendered his resignation last week.

A spokesman for Mayor Tavares did not return a call seeking comment.

Mr. Smith said, however, that he felt the district and not the state law was primarily to blame. “Every other district in the state has figured this [law] out,” he said.

A $408 million deficit in the Los Angeles district, meanwhile, has led the district to make an ample estimate of the number of cuts it may need to make. It sent about 4,500 pink slips to teachers in March.

“The state budget timeline is not in coordination with the March 15 [pink-slip] deadline,” said Vivian K. Ekchian, the human-resources director for the 678,000-student district. “We have to send the notices out under our best understanding of the budget.”

An updated budget picture won’t be completed until May, when the Los Angeles district has a better handle on enrollment projections and teacher resignations and retirements, among other measures. In addition, school “site councils” there make decisions about how to spend some state and federal money, which can be used for teaching positions or other purposes. (“Amid Fiscal Crisis, L.A. Gives Site Councils Budget Reins,” July 15, 2009.)

Like many colleagues, Los Angeles teacher Monica Iñiguez has received a layoff warning. It will be weeks—possibly months—before a final decision is made.

Finally, a much-publicized settlement in a state lawsuit shelters 45 Los Angeles schools from staff cuts, meaning that district officials have had to redirect those 502 pink slips to teachers in the district’s other 1,050 schools. (“L.A. Settles ACLU Suit on Layoffs,” October 13, 2010.) The average school in Los Angeles had 15 percent of its staff impacted by the notices, and district officials sought to apply the additional layoffs to schools below that threshold.

Nevertheless, a handful of elementary schools, like Noble Avenue, have upwards of half their teaching staffs receiving pink slips.

Ms. Ekchian, who fields calls and emails from teachers, says she sympathizes with those who are frustrated by the waiting game.

“They’re terribly distraught by this process,” she said. “I am, too.”

‘Our Lives on Hold’

Budget experts anticipate that more teachers will receive the notices over the next few months, as more states reach their pink-slip deadlines.

It’s hard to tell just how many are likely to go out. States have not completed their budgeting for this year, and federal aid remains in flux. For the federal fiscal year, which began last Oct. 1, Congress has provided aid through a series of stopgap measures, but fierce wrangling over budget cuts has made Washington’s comparatively small share of education funding hard to count on.

Pink slips typically are reserved for nontenured teachers, who under reverse-seniority policies are usually the ones let go. Prospective cuts in Los Angeles are so numerous, though, that some of the teachers who received pink slips have been teaching since 2001 and have tenure.

Noble Avenue teachers say their situation is doubly frustrating: Though the elementary school serves many disadvantaged students and has made progress in recent years, it was not among the schools shielded under the court settlement.

In the past, district leaders have worked out furlough days with the teachers’ union—five in 2009-10 and seven this school year—allowing the district to rescind some pink slips, though it has had to lay off some 2,700 teachers since 2008-09.

The district is again in negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles about concessions, with both furloughs and benefits potentially on the table. District and union leaders alike had hoped that state lawmakers would put to voters this summer a proposal to temporarily extend taxes, but California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, abandoned that plan.

Though Ms. Iñiguez knows that all the pink-slipped teachers in her school would lose their jobs only under a worst-case scenario, it’s of little comfort at the moment.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “We’re putting our lives on hold.”

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Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and 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 April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Budget Crunch Spurs Expectation of Increase in Pink Slips


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