News Clips

April 20, 2011

San Diego Union Tribune: Disadvantaged schools may get break in layoffs

San Diego Union Tribune | Maureen Magee

When one in six teachers in the San Diego school district were warned they could lose their job last month, a disproportionate number of those pink slips were issued at campuses serving the most disadvantaged students.

But as some layoff notices get rescinded — more than 40 percent have been recalled so far — some teachers at the neediest schools have won job protection over their colleagues in more affluent neighborhoods.

Critics have long complained that the “last hired, first fired” seniority-based layoffs disrupt the stability of struggling schools that typically employ the most new teachers. In a settlement to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Public Counsel Law Center, the Los Angeles school district exempted 45 needy campuses from seniority-based layoffs.

Since then, the San Diego Unified School District has started to chip away at the practice that can lead to wholesale faculty changes at some of its struggling campuses. Although the change is slight, it could begin to help schools maintain some stability for disadvantaged students.

“The overall issue of trying to provide stability to high-poverty schools is something that I believe in and the majority of the board believes in,” said San Diego school board President Richard Barrera. “The question becomes, what is the best way to get at that. For me the best way is not laying off teachers.”

When districts warn teachers they could be laid off, they issue pinks slips by credential and hire date. Usually, more employees are tapped for layoffs than necessary.

But undoing some or all of the layoff notices is more difficult and it requires districts to turn to tiebreakers, criteria that determines whose pink slip to rescind or which teacher to rehire when educators share similar credentials and seniority dates.

Tiebreakers usually include additional credentials or specialty certifications. But this year, San Diego Unified’s No. 1 tiebreaker is whether a teacher works at a school ranked in the bottom three deciles on the Academic Performance Index, an indication they are struggling to meet test score goals.

“When these schools can have the same teachers year after year, that helps with stability,” said Hedieh Khajari, human resources officer for San Diego Unified.

The district issued layoff notices to 1,355 educators in March to help offset a projected deficit of $114 million to the district’s $1.04 billion operating budget. Teachers targeted for pink slips hold various credentials and were hired since 2003, the year of a hiring spree due, in part, to a state program to trim class sizes.

Since its budget plan has changed slightly in the past few weeks, the district has rescinded at least 559 pink slips issued to elementary school teachers, music teachers, and school nurses. The layoff notices were canceled based on seniority first, then based on a list of 25 tiebreakers if necessary.

At Central Elementary School in City Heights, where most students qualify for subsidized meals and speak English as a second language, 41 percent of teachers got pink slips. So far, four of those 16 teachers had their notices rescinded.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Principal Cindy Marten said. “It shows there is a sentiment on the board recognizing that API 1-3 schools need consideration.”

It’s unclear how much of an impact the tiebreakers would have on the overall distribution of pink slips or actual layoffs, if it comes to that.

The district has until May 15 to rescind pink slips or formally issue layoff notices. Confusion over the pink slip process and over the district’s finances continues to linger among educators. The San Diego Education Association says that the district is sitting on a $66 million reserve account that could be used to recall all pink slips. But district spokeswoman Linda Zintz said that money has been accounted for, save for $30 million owed from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration that, if received, would go a projected deficit in the 2011-12 school year.

Jessica Graham, who teaches English at Kearny High School’s science and technology academy, is confused and angry. But she’s hopeful that her pink slip will be rescinded.

“This whole process is counterintuitive. I just think if we really want to improve schools, we have to look at more than seniority. We have to look at teacher merit,” said Graham, who was twice named a Kearny teacher of the year.

Catherine Lhamon of Public Counsel commended the district’s new tiebreaker but said San Diego has a long way to go.

“School districts in the state — I hope including San Diego — have taken notice of the settlement in Los Angeles and the courts affirmation that school districts must, even in the context of layoffs, protect a student’s learning opportunities,” Lhamon said.

Meanwhile, not all of San Diego Unified’s tiebreakers have lofty goals behind them. No. 25 and last on the list would rescind a layoff notice or rehire a teacher based on the last four digits of their Social Security number. Officials hope they never have to resort to using that one.