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The Pain of Pink Slips

District budget crises are leading to fewer teachers, less staff and more problems. But there are wa

As the red ink continues to rise in school districts around the country, it's coloring more and more pink slips. The Columbus, Ohio, public schools began the school year with 600 fewer employees than last year. Baltimore schools are missing twice that amount. And Detroit is staggering under 2,200 fresh job cuts, including 900 teaching positions.

And large-scale reductions of teachers, support staff and administrators, either through attrition or layoffs, are becoming a way of life--and causing a shock to the system--in districts of all sizes.

"We knew something was coming, but not so much so soon," says Robert Thomas, the principal for the past 10 years at the A. Douglas Jamieson Elementary School in central Detroit. He's had to lay off four teachers, three paraprofessionals, an assistant principal, a secretary and a custodian.

"Having to tell these people, 'You're no longer able to work,' is devastating," Thomas admits. "One teacher came to me in tears saying, 'I've got a new house. I'm a single mom. And I got a pink slip.' "

" Having to tell people, 'You're no longer
able to work,' is devastating."
-Robert Thomas, Principal, Jamieson Elementary School, Detroit (Mich.)

Thomas also worries that the school--which is 99 percent African-American and 95 percent free- and reduced-lunch eligible--will lose hard-fought ground. Class sizes have increased from 24 to more than 30, jeopardizing a five-year streak of meeting Annual Yearly Progress requirements.

But as Thomas leads the way down neat, brown-and-tan hallways, he says the school's problems go beyond the classrooms. The loss of the secretary means that only one person is left to do the NCLB-mandated record-keeping for Jamieson's highly transient student body. The missing custodian means that parts of the building go without regular cleaning. And the reduction of tradespeople working for the Detroit school system simply has left Jamieson in the lurch.

"We've had a repair order in for our steps since last November. There are lots of building things not being repaired," Thomas adds, as he waves at missing clusters of linoleum floor tiles in almost every corridor.

Jim Parga, Jamieson's building engineer and facilities manager, agrees, as he changes a fluorescent hall light. He nods toward a glazier replacing a large window that faces the school's courtyard. "It affects us big time when they lay off tradespeople like that one," Parga says. "When you dwindle down the manpower and you have 200 schools, things have to give. I don't have the resources to do these jobs. So our whole system turns from doing preventive maintenance to putting out fires, and things start to deteriorate."

Layoffs can persuade new teachers
with master's degrees to leave
education, and rob a school system of
the natural exuberance that a young
workforce brings.

Administrators in smaller localities also are dealing with slashed budgets and reduced staffing. Last year, the Unatego Central School District in upstate New York cut nine teachers and aides, mainly in its two elementary schools.

"We were facing a limited amount of money, and a budget that was going to raise rates for our taxpayers beyond an acceptable level," explains Superintendent Rex Hurlburt. "We were looking at other areas to cut, but in a small, rural school, most of your money is in teachers and staff."

Besides increasing elementary class sizes and shaving arts and music education to a minimum, Unatego's layoffs have left remaining educators hard pressed to provide extra or remedial help to students.

"There are just fewer eyes in the elementary schools to keep track of everything," Hurlburt concludes.

Roger Gallizzi, the assistant super-intendent of personnel in Palmdale, Calif., an hour north of Los Angeles, adds that across-the-board cuts of almost 200 positions in his mid-size district have literally changed business as usual.

"Now we are always under the gun in terms of getting fiscal documents to the state or the county on time because we have less people in the financial department. Our payroll department has lost 20 percent of its staff. Teachers find more errors in their paychecks than in the past, and correcting them takes longer as well because there are less people to problem solve."

Stemming the Losses

"There are no best practices when it comes to laying people off," observes Palmdale Superintendent Jack Gyves. But administrators there and in other states are amassing a repertoire of practices and strategies to minimize cuts and limit the negative impact on schools.

The first line of defense, they agree, is to preserve jobs whenever possible. In the case of Palmdale, which faced widespread layoffs for the first time in 30 years, that meant filling any vacancies with temporary workers.

"When we finally found out whom we were laying off, we bumped those people into the vacant positions," Gallizzi explains. "It might be a totally different position. You might have been a grounds worker and you became a special education instructional assistant. But you didn't lose your job and you didn't lose your benefits."

It also helps to monitor attrition rates and limit the number of reduction-in-force notices that you send out, says Larry Nyland, the new superintendent of the Marysville, (Wash.) School District, not far from Seattle. "If you know that you have 15 elementary openings every year like clockwork, you can take a small risk rather than RIF those last few elementary teachers," he calculates.

Nyland should know. Of the more than 50 Marysville teachers who received RIFs last spring before he arrived, half have returned.

"You can avoid the personal heartache and trauma," he says, "and you avoid having them look for other work. People often come off the RIF list because they've found jobs in other districts."

Approaches like these, say Nyland and other superintendents, also may stem the growing loss of young teachers. Since these educators are among the last ones hired, they often are the first ones let go and may be tempted to switch fields altogether.

"Most of them have master's degrees," says National Education Association spokesman Daniel Kaufman, "and there are other avenues for them to pursue. When you have more options than ever before, you may say, 'I enjoy teaching, but I would be making more money at another job.' "

The potential loss of the next generation of teachers also concerns Detroit Public Schools CEO Kenneth Burnley. "When you don't have that young, exuberant force coming in with new ideas and methods, you tend to become stagnant if you're not careful. And we've invested heavily not only in these young teachers but also in our other young employees."

Baltimore's public schools took a more radical approach to save jobs this past spring by proposing a systemwide pay cut in lieu of layoffs. "We would have not paid folks for eight days--which would have been furlough days--or we would have decreased their salaries by 4 percent between March and the end of June," says Rose Piedmont, the district's CFO.

"That would have saved us $16 million. It was taken to our labor unions twice, and it was voted down by all but our principals and administrators."

Planning for Cutbacks

When saving jobs is no longer an option, say administrators, thinking resourcefully and flexibly can go a long way. In Columbus, Ohio, Superintendent Gene Harris covered almost all 600 of this year's job losses through an early separation program negotiated with the district's unions. The program's financial incentives target employees interested in early retirement, as well as others simply interested in leaving the school system. The payment of those incentives over the next six to eight years--rather than in a lump sum--promises to save the district millions of dollars.

Harris notes that keeping annual budget increases to 4.6 percent over the past three years averted even greater job losses.

"We saw this coming," she says. "We evaluated programs, we looked at the ones that might not be helping us get to our goal, and we eliminated some of them in advance."

For Headmaster Charles Skidmore, whose public Brighton High School absorbed its share of 1,400 job cuts in Boston, getting started early with the layoff process and remaining transparent throughout were priorities.

Starting to plan plan early for layoffs and
making the entire process transparent
helps when the cuts arrive. So does
being willing to ax administrative staff
as well as teachers.
-Charles Skidmore, headmaster, Boston's Brighton High School.

"It helps if you have that cushion of time," he says. "I began to let my school site council know about it right away, and the faculty at large. So it didn't rock our school the way it did others. When I finally gave out 42 layoff notices in March, on the next day everyone was in school. I had perfect staff attendance. And they knew that I as headmaster did everything I could to save as many jobs as possible."

"I also was willing to let go of one of my administrators," Skidmore adds. "A lot of headmasters were not willing to do that and were cutting teachers over administrators."

"The communication piece is huge," stresses Palmdale's Roger Gallizzi. "We held town meetings where we invited the public to give input. We had thousands of people show up to say, 'Cut this position. Don't cut that position.' We wanted to hear from the community. In my town, we're the No. 2 employer, so layoffs really are a community issue."

And don't forget to accentuate the positive, says Kenneth Burnley, the CEO of the Detroit Public Schools. Burnley has engineered Detroit's record cuts in a depressing climate of soaring state budget deficits and a plummeting student census.

"In difficult times, communicate the academic progress and other successes in your schools," Burnley says. "It's very important to celebrate those positives and not just be pulled down by the negatives."

Look for Money-saving Changes

Of course, making the most of what you have left poses the next challenge of a reduced work force.

"The layoffs made us work smarter," says Gallizzi. "They made us reevaluate what tasks people did and when they did them. We went back and reexamined everybody's job description to be doing what they were supposed to be doing."

In the absence of a laid-off night supervisor, for instance, Gallizzi and his staff reviewed the nightly runs of custodians and retrained them to follow the same cleaning practices--an approach that he says makes them more thorough and efficient.

With its reduced force of groundskeepers, Palmdale is also changing the way it is designing new buildings. "For the schools we build in the future," says Gallizzi, "We're going to think about how the grounds are landscaped so they are lower maintenance. The very latest school we've built has arid, desert landscaping." That's a world apart, he notes, from the large, lush lawns and multitude of green fields at Palmdale's other facilities.

" The layoffs made us work smarter.
They made us reevaluate what tasks
people did and when they did them."
-Roger Gallizzi, assistant superintendent of personnel in Palmdale, Calif.

"I think school systems often profit from the down years in a cycle by learning how to do things differently," observes Charles Skidmore. "You can look at places where you thought, 'Oh, that's indispensable', and say 'Well, we've been able to live without that.' "

As a case in point, Brighton High School did not rehire its computer literacy teachers, opting instead for portable laptops that integrate computer literacy into students' core courses.

Perhaps the strongest lesson to emerge from the recent waves of job cuts is that towing the bottom line is changing the way schools and their leaders operate.

"The job of superintendent is becoming more and more aligned with a business function," says Unatego Superintendent Rex Hurlburt. "The money's just not there, and we just can't keep raising property taxes."

Baltimore's CFO Rose Piedmont, who inherited multi-million dollar deficits when she arrived from a similar job in the private sector, agrees that the same economic rules apply to public schools.

"Our business is educating children, but we also have to educate those children in a fiscally responsible manner," Piedmont says. "We need to operate within our means. We can't make decisions to do things without understanding the full financial repercussions."

Ron Schachter is freelance writer who frequently covers education issues.