Critics Call Teacher Layoff Policy ‘As Stupid As The Sequester’
Tuesday, March 05, 2013
As it is written, school districts that are projecting a potential budget deficit must inform their teachers if there is a possibility that a layoff could come at the end of the school year by the first day of March.
Opponents of the pre-spring date contend that it comes too soon into the fiscal year for cities and towns to actually know what their budgets look like, and thus they are making decisions on who may or may not be let go based on incomplete information, and argue that all it does is create stress for teachers about their potential employment status for the rest of the school year.
Despite this, however, the main stumbling block to legislation that would move that date to June 1 remains … the unions representing the teachers themselves.
The Union’s Stance
“To be accurate, we do not oppose a later notification date for layoffs but we object to the specific legislation that co-mingles layoff notices with termination notices,” said James Parisi, field representative for the RI Federation of Teachers.
According to Parisi, current laws only govern layoff notices for districts that suffer a population decline and, he says, using budget shortfalls to, in effect, fire a teacher without affording them the same protections that a laid off employee would receive—i.e. being hired back based on seniority—are worth opposing.
“The position of the Department of Education is that if there’s a budget shortfall, that’s a justification for firing someone and we’ve argued that for decades whenever there’s a budget shortfall, that was a layoff,” he said. “This whole notion of mixing up firings with actual layoffs due to declining enrollment or budgets or a combination of are two separate discussions and that’s why legislation hasn’t passed in the last five years.”
The problem with that stance is that, until the union decides to back legislation like the two bills proposed this year in the House and Senate, the March 1 date will remain in effect and potentially throw every school year into chaos, as was the case last year when Woonsocket gave most of its teachers a notice and in 2011 when Providence did the same.
“It is insane that we put our teachers through the mental anguish of layoff notifications when the district really doesn’t know what the next year’s finances are going to look like yet,” said Ken Block, Chairman of the Moderate Party of
Rhode Island. “The March 1 date should be moved to at least June 1.”
Block, who said on Twitter that the current way things are handled is “a policy as stupid as the Sequester,” is not alone in his opposition.
“The March 1st deadline has negative consequences for students and teachers,” added Christine Lopes, Executive Director of RI-CAN. “When officials are forced to make these critical staffing decisions in the midst of the school year, it causes unnecessary turmoil and disruption in the school that brings down morale and interrupts vital work and progress being made by teachers.”
RIDE Commissioner Deborah Gist agrees with Block and Lopes and says the department has testified in support of bills that would push the date back in the past.
“The requirement that school committees must provide educators with layoff notices by a March 1 deadline is an exercise that has to be stopped,” Gist said Monday. “This arbitrary deadline serves no purpose except to add to the stress of teachers who are working hard every day to provide our students with a world-class education.”
Making it Clear
Parisi says that the way state law is currently written, March 1 represents a critical date for a number of different notices about teacher employment.
“The first section is the date when a probationary teacher has to be notified that they’re not coming back next year,” he says. “That’s a firing and we think that date should stay March 1. The next date in the law is when a tenured teacher is notified that they’re going to get fired for just cause and we think that date should stay at March 1 and then there’s a third section of the law that deals with layoffs but it only talks specifically about layoffs because of population decline.”
Parisi says that the union wants a later date for teacher layoff notifications and has worked with lawmakers to craft legislation that would push the date back to May or June but, he says, any change needs to make it “crystal clear” what constitutes a lay off and what constitutes a firing.
"What I’m saying is if there’s a budget reason to have less people, it’s a layoff, it’s not a firing and those are two different things,” he said. “A layoff means you’re not coming back next year but if our budget gets better, if someone goes out on a long-term leave or someone quits, we’re bringing you back. A layoff is temporary. It could be a year or two but it’s temporary. A firing is permanent and it’s a different thing.”
A Complicated Problem
“Laying off hundreds of educators because of an imposed notification deadline leads to undue stress and anxiety and can disrupt the process of teaching and learning,” she said. “I do believe that teachers and other educators need to know in a timely manner when their jobs may be in jeopardy, but information they receive on March 1 is not meaningful. I have supported and will continue to support legislation that would move the notification date to June 1, by which time school committees have much more information about their finances.”
Not everyone sees the issue as “black and white,” though.
“The March date gives teachers a chance to look for jobs if they receive layoff notices, which can be to their benefit,” said Rick Richards, a retired employee of RIDE's Offices of Testing, School Improvement and School Transformation. “It can also have a bad effect on moral.”
Block says the current date takes “the wind out of the sails” of the teacher who receives a layoff notice.
“A good friend teaches in Pawtucket and has received a layoff notice for each of the 7 years that she has been teaching,” he said. “When a teacher is concerned and stressed about his or her financial and professional future it is bound to have an adverse impact on the students.”
Gist says the current law is “well-intentioned” but has led to “unintended consequences.”
“Because the March 1 deadline falls early in the budget process, well before school districts are certain about their state aid and local revenues, school committees feel compelled to notify many or all educators about pending layoffs – even though the members of the school committee know that many or all of the teachers will ultimately retain their jobs,” she said. “No educator or school-committee member takes any pleasure in the process of layoffs, but we can all agree that the process should be done in a way that is in line with the budget process, is fair to teachers, and is in the best interest of our students.”
Parisi isn’t surprised whose on the side the date switch.
“If you take a look at who signs up on this, all the pro-management, all the management perspective keeps trying to tell the world that teachers want this bill and that’s not true,” he said. “My union and the NEA are run by people who teachers elect to run the organization. Our members don’t want unnecessary layoff notices and they’re being told that there will be less notices if we move the date back but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case because these budgets are pretty stable.
“In any case, I know that our members, our teachers want layoffs and recalls by seniority and that’s something that the Commissioner won’t agree to and I don’t think superintendents or school committees will agree to it and that’s something that I think the politicians have to figure it out.”
- Date Change Demanded for Teacher Layoffs
- Lawmakers Hope to Push Back Teacher Layoff Notification Date
- NEW: Bill Would Move Teacher Layoff Notifications to June
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