Friday, May 13, 2011


Should law be changed to reflect reality? What a concept!

Louis Freedberg | Senior Reporter and Adviser to California Watch |

U.S. Census Bureau

May 13, 2011 | Thousands of California teachers will receive final layoff notices by a state-imposed deadline of May 15, even though school districts are still in the dark about their financial status in the coming school year.

The May 15 deadline follows a March 15 deadline, when school districts were required to issue preliminary layoff notices. Both dates are completely out of sync with the stalled negotiations in Sacramento that will determine whether billions of dollars more will have to be slashed from public school budgets.

There is a broad consensus among school officials and teacher representatives that the dates, specified in Education Code 44955, should be changed to reflect reality. 

At the very least, say some, the final layoff deadline should be moved until after the governor announces the revision of his annual budget on May 15. This year, because May 15 falls on a Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown will issue his "May revise" on May 16. By then, regardless of what he says about the schools budget for the coming school year, teachers facing termination will already have their final layoff notices in hand.

"If teachers are going to receive a final notice, they will have received it, or will receive it by today," said Suzanne Speck, a director at School Services of California, a leading Sacramento-based consulting firm.

The state-mandated deadlines effectively force local school officials to make very conservative estimates about their staff needs for fall, and to be aggressive in laying off teachers they aren't sure they will need.  That is especially true for school districts where enrollments are declining and they have no way of anticipating exactly how many students will show up in the fall.

"Once school starts, you can't get rid of staff," said Speck, a former director of human resources at Vallejo City Unified School District. "You are stuck with staff until the next layoff season."  

In addition to its impact on teachers themselves, the issue has direct consequences for classroom instruction. Because of the early deadlines, school districts may be forced to lay off more teachers than they may be required to. As a result, students who show up in the fall may be assigned to crowded classes in the fall until districts have time to hire additional teachers. 

"It is disruptive," Speck said. "You would like kids to start with the same teachers they are going to have for the entire year."

"It causes a lot of hardship," said Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association. As a result of the artificial deadlines, he said, "districts are going to make decisions on worst-case scenarios, even though what happens might not be as bad as predicted."

The March 15 and May 15 deadlines that have been in place for decades work fine when school budgets are predictable from one year to the next. But the fixed dates can compound a school district's difficulties as it tries to traverse the increasingly frequent periods of fiscal uncertainty and crisis that afflict the state. 

Superintendent Maria De La Vega, superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, says the May 15 deadline should be pushed back at least until June. Without knowing what her finances will be in the fall, she said, "We have staff we would like to retain, and I can't tell them I can retain them because I don't know if I will have to cut further."

"We have to be financially prudent," she said. "Come August, I can't find myself in a position of having to cut another $2 million. In that case, I will be stuck with the staff I didn't let go." 

Mark Skvarna, superintendent of Baldwin Park Unified School District, east of Los Angeles, said school districts, not the state, should decide when to send out pink slips. "We should be given the flexibility to do layoffs whenever they need to happen," he said.

He said the March 15 date for the interim layoff notices is equally bad because teachers who receive them are likely to start looking for other work."If you have a person in the classroom who is doing a good job, what kind of work are you going to get out of them when you put them under that kind of cloud?"

Section 44955.5 of the state Education Code allows districts to lay off additional teachers five days after the state adopts a budget and before Aug. 15 under certain circumstances. But the Legislature would have to enact a budget by the end of June for districts to have the time to institute more layoffs. And that, said Speck, has only happened about eight times over the past three decades. It is even less likely to happen under current gridlocked circumstances.

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