Layoffs Possible, Schools Warn

Times Staff Writers

In a precautionary response to the state budget crisis this week, school districts across California are notifying tens of thousands of teachers and school administrators that they could be laid off next year.

As many as 30,000 teachers and administrators are receiving the so-called March 15 notices this year, according to estimates by education officials and organizations.

The eventual number of layoffs is expected to be much smaller as the state adopts a budget and school districts get a better handle on their finances.

But that probably won't be known until summer, or even after school starts in the fall with what the state projects will be an enrollment increase of about 100,000 students.

Meanwhile, the notices are triggering anxiety among faculty members, who will be in limbo for months, and are unsettling students and their families.

Some teachers who received the notices this week said they are considering leaving the profession.

"I can't wait for the state to get its head together," said Kerry Pellow, a Laguna Beach computer graphics teacher who received a notice along with seven administrators and 42 other district instructors -- out of a teacher work force of 127 there. She is renewing her real estate license and plans to start job hunting in May.

"I have a family to support and a house payment to make," she said. "I have to get the ball rolling as far as covering my bases." School district leaders say the notices -- which under state rules must be postmarked by Saturday -- are necessary for flexibility as they wrestle with more than $5 billion in education cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis over the next 18 months.

Wayne Johnson, president of the state teachers union, accused school districts of using the notices as a ploy to force concessions at the collective bargaining table.

But other education experts said the number of notices reflects the dire financial situation facing schools up and down the state. Districts occasionally have resorted to the notices in the past, but officials say this year's volume is the largest they can recall.

"School districts don't issue layoff notices for effect or to convince legislators to do something to their advantage. They don't want to issue these notices," said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a private consulting firm that works with most of the state's more than 1,000 districts.

The state Department of Education does not collect data on how many notices are issued, but several organizations will be keeping count over the next few weeks.

Early indications from the California Assn. of School Business Officials and other groups suggest the numbers of notices could exceed 30,000 from several hundred districts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, largest in the state, did not send out any notices to teachers because so many will be needed next year for swelling enrollments. But the district did notify all 2,600 administrators that their jobs could be on the line, as it has done in past years.

Laying off teachers would be "very, very disruptive," said Deborah Hirsh, the district's chief human resources officer.

School officials in San Diego notified 1,487 teachers and 502 administrators this week -- 25% of its certified staff -- that they may not be coming back next year.

In the West Contra Costa Unified School District, just north of Berkeley, nearly half of the 1,900 teachers received notices.

The nearby Alameda Unified School District went a step further -- sending notices to all 635 teachers and 50 administrators.

"We're just being prudent," said Donna Fletcher, an Alameda district spokeswoman, who added that the notices are "not meant to alarm anyone." .

She said: "It's not a situation we created. We're dealing the hand we were dealt by the state."

Because of union seniority rules, the newest teachers will be the first to go if districts ultimately lay off employees, officials said.

District leaders lament the potential loss of young, enthusiastic teachers and the millions of dollars spent to train them.

"These are people we just don't want to lose," said Vic Pallos, a spokesman for the Glendale Unified School District, which sent layoff notices to 45 of its 1,550 teachers. "They have tons of energy and they are very talented."

Danae Stanfield, 26, a teacher with less than a year at Mountain Avenue Elementary in La Crescenta, felt dejected when she received her notice last week. Mountain Avenue is in the Glendale district.

"I want to be there to see these kids next year," she said. "And then I think, 'Oh, man! I might not be here!' It's so sad. I'm just really disappointed."

The Pasadena Unified School District is sending out 200 notices to teachers and other personnel, said Erik Nasarenko, a district spokesman.

The district is trying to trim $7 million from its $186-million budget this year, he said, and that may mean a substantial number of layoffs. The district has 2,500 employees.

"It's incumbent on us to treat this process with as much humanity and dignity as possible," Nasarenko said.

Layoffs may result in larger classes and elimination of some specialty programs, such as computer and art classes.

Several districts also are thinking about dropping out of the state's voluntary class size reduction program in kindergarten through third grade. Increasing the size of those small classes, now capped at 20 students, would save significant amounts of money, even after the loss of state funding for the program, officials said.

Saddleback Valley Unified in Orange County, which has sent layoff notices to more than 200 of its 1,800 teachers, is among those reluctantly considering raising the size of primary grade classes.

"This is obviously the worst-case scenario," said Assistant Supt. Jennifer Huff.

Some local teachers union leaders have called on their districts to dip into reserve funds rather than lay off teachers. But district leaders said they are fearful that might leave them vulnerable in an already shaky economy.

"In times as tough as these, it is all the more reason to have adequate reserves," said Stan Mantooth, business services chief for the Ventura County schools office. "If districts spend them, they could very well go bankrupt."

While most school districts grapple with layoff notices, some are finding other ways to balance their budgets -- partly through smart planning, partly because of enrollment growth.

Lauren Shaw, a human resources employee with Long Beach Unified, said the district is not sending out layoff notices because board members anticipated budget problems a long time ago and cut overtime, froze some hiring, trimmed equipment purchases and dipped into reserve funds to preserve teaching staff.

The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District introduced an early retirement program this spring, deferred purchases of computer software and eliminated most travel and maintenance to avoid layoffs, officials said.

Officials at Ocean View, another Orange County district that avoided the notices, are actually attending a job fair Saturday with an eye to recruiting teachers for the growing district.

"It's too soon to tell if we'll be getting new hires but, if you're hiring, there's a lot of talent out there," said Assistant Supt. Mike Luker. "There is just a flood of people getting notices."

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