Losing experience in teacher layoffs

California school districts should not be bound by seniority when budget cuts force them to lay off teachers, according to far-reaching report released yesterday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

A Review of the Teacher Layoff Process in California also recommends changing the deadline for notifying teachers they may be laid off from March 15 to June 1, eliminating the teachers’ right to a formal hearing and giving more authority to local districts and bargaining units to determine the layoff process.

The LAO based its recommendations on responses to a survey from 230 out of about 950 school districts, although the Analyst’s Office said those responses included eight of the state’s ten largest districts.

Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.
Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.

One the main concerns was the huge number of “overnotifications,” or sending pink slips to far more teachers than necessary. According to the LAO, for every ten teachers given preliminary layoff notices last March, about 75 percent of them ended up keeping their jobs.

The problem lies in the timeline, which forces school districts to make budgetary decisions before the governor releases the May Revise, which contains the most current information on projected state revenues. To be on the safe side, districts issue layoff notices based on the worst-case scenario.

The report notes that lowering the number of initial layoff notices “would reduce the time and cost invested in conducting the layoff process, result in fewer teachers unnecessarily concerned about losing their job, and minimize the loss of morale in the school communities affected by layoff notices.”

Union leaders criticized that logic as overly simplistic. Shannon Brown, California’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and president of the San Juan Teachers Association, said moving the deadline for layoff notices may make sense from a fiscal perspective, but would have devastating consequences for laid-off teachers, giving them just a few weeks to find a new job.  That’s what contributes to low teacher morale, said Brown.  That and  the entire crisis in education funding in California that’s led to increasing class sizes, dwindling resources, teacher bashing, and the loss of some 32,000 teaching positions in the last four years. “The layoff notices only add insult to injury,” she said.

The high price of layoffs

It costs districts about $700 for each teacher who’s pink-slipped in the spring. Sacramento City Unified School District, which sent notices to more than 460 teachers last week, estimates the cost at $670 per teacher. That’s $308,000 for a district that’s been cut by $90 million over the past three years. Statewide, California school districts spent about $14 million last year in

Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700.  (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.
Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

administrative and legal expenses, plus the costs of postage and paying for substitutes for teachers who challenged their notices before an administrative law judge.

Typically teachers will ask for a hearing if they believe the district made a mistake in their hiring date or the type of credential they hold; both factors that count when determining who gets laid off. But the LAO concluded that the hearings do not “add substantial value” to the process, and recommended that they be eliminated and replaced with a less formal review process.

San Juan’s Brown countered that the hearings in her district uncover mistakes nearly every year that result in people getting their jobs back. “If hearings were not held,” said Brown, “there would be people wrongfully terminated.”

Asked about the report at the Capitol yesterday morning, State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said although he hadn’t had a chance to review it detail, he sympathized with the financial dilemma facing school districts and noted that unless the Governor’s ballot initiative to raise taxes passes in November, the fiscal crisis will become even more severe.  At that point, some of the LAO’s recommendations will have to be on the table.  “We need to consider an array of options moving forward,” said Steinberg.

That worries the California Teachers Association.  Spokesman Mike Myslinski said the LAO’s plan is a misguided effort that fails to address the underlying problem of the state’s inability to balance the budget.  “The bottom line,” said Myslinski, “is that the state really is in extraordinary times now, and we want lawmakers to be cautious of using these current dire circumstances to make permanent policy decisions that impact student learning.”

LAO nixes Gov’s community college budget

Gov. Brown missed a chance to save millions for community colleges by reining in Board of Governors fee waivers, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The LAO released its review of Brown’s 2012-13 higher education budget plan yesterday, and raised red flags on that program and on the governor’s proposals to make major changes in the way community colleges are funded, as well as big changes in categorical programs.

The report instead supports many of the recommendations in the recently released Student Success Task Force report, which was produced at the request of the Legislature.

“Enacting these changes would help the state better target resources toward CCC’s core missions, as well as create a strong incentive for students to achieve their educational goals within a reasonable time period. We thus recommend the Legislature enact these proposals,” wrote the LAO in its report.

The LAO’s analysis gave a fair amount of ink to the Board of Governors fee waivers, which have been increasing so rapidly that 70 percent of students may get a free ride next year. Already, the waivers have eaten into nearly the entire $110 million that community colleges were supposed to raise this academic year by raising fees from $26 to $36 per unit.

BOG fee waiver trends (Source: Leg. Analyst) click to enlarge.
BOG fee waiver trends (Source: Leg. Analyst) click to enlarge.

“A large financial aid program the governor does not address is that of the Board of Governors fee waiver program at the community colleges,” said the LAO’s managing principal analyst Steve Boilard in taped comments accompanying the report. “What we suggest are ways to rein in the costs of this program and to better leverage the program to increase student access.”

As the LAO notes, the Student Success Task Force has recommended just that. It calls for a higher threshold for aid – currently students have to show just $1 of need to qualify – and for requiring students to show progress toward their degree or transfer plan in order to continue receiving waivers.

Revamping funding system

To the relief of the Community College Chancellor’s Office, the LAO calls for a flat-out rejection of the governor’s proposal to change the way community colleges are funded. Dan Troy, the Vice Chancellor of Finance, said Gov. Brown wants to scrap the system of funding community colleges based on FTES, or full-time equivalent students, and replace it with something not fully developed.

For the 2012-13 school year, colleges would receive the same amount of funding they get this year, unless the Chancellor’s office comes up with an alternative methodology for allocating the money. “Changing a major $6 billion system of finance could have some unintended consequences,” said Troy. “I would suggest that if the governor wants to entertain changes or give more flexibility, we’re willing to engage in some discussion about it in a more deliberate manner.”

There’s little agreement among the Governor, the LAO or the Chancellor’s office when it comes to the proposal to consolidate funding for all 21 categorical programs into a single flex item.  Gov. Brown’s budget plan would also eliminate many of the community college mandates and give districts a lot of discretion on how they spend the money – nearly $400 million this year.  A few mandates would remain, including funding for the Foster Parent Education Program.

The LAO gives the plan a mixed review in its report:  “We agree that districts would benefit from more categorical flexibility. We have concerns, however, that the Governor’s approach could result in local decisions that undermine the Legislature’s original intent for these funds.”

The Student Success Task Force also expressed concerns about the bureaucratic inefficiency of requiring local campuses to manage nearly two dozen separate programs.  But the panel isn’t ready to propose a sweeping consolidation.  Instead, it calls on the legislature to streamline reporting requirements for the programs, and urges the colleges to “break down programmatic silos and voluntarily collaborate in an effort to improve the success of students.”

Dan Troy said the Chancellor’s office isn’t about to support any proposals that differ  from the Student Success Task Force proposals.  “We have a well vetted plan there,” he said, “and wouldn’t want to deviate from that.”