(photo by cybrarian)

(Photo by cybrarian)

(This story has been updated.) Districts have issued dramatically fewer preliminary layoff notices to teachers this year, signaling an end to five years of high budgetary anxiety and providing one of the first concrete examples of the immediate benefits of Proposition 30.

Statewide, districts sent 3,000-plus “pink slips” to teachers and certain other certificated staff, such as counselors and librarians, according to the California Teachers Association, which tracks the numbers. The Association expects the count to rise and plans to issue a final tally later this week. “The overwhelming majority of pink slips were for teachers,” said the Association’s spokesman Mike Myslinski.

The deadline for districts to send the notices was Friday. The count includes first- and second-year teachers as well as tenured teachers. No administrators are included.

The numbers represent a significant decrease from the 20,000 notices issued last year. Districts issued 26,000 pink slips in 2010, the peak during the recession, the association said.

The passage of Prop. 30 in November – which prevented a $5 billion midyear cut to K-12 schools and provides more funding for schools during the next seven years – has made it possible for districts to more confidently budget for next year.

“In general, the picture is really good,” said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association. “We’re taking a breath; we’re very happy about that.”

Districts are required to notify teachers and other certificated personnel, such as counselors and administrators, by March 15 that they may not have a job when school starts in the fall. Typically, most of the pink slips are rescinded. But studies have shown that just the threat of layoffs can demoralize staff and have an impact on classrooms throughout a school district, according to “Schools Under Stress,” a 2012 report by EdSource on the stresses faced by districts.

Marc Johnson, superintendent of Sanger Unified in Fresno County, understands the effect of pink slips and says his district, with the equivalent of 500 full-time teachers and administrators, won’t issue any notices this year, despite uncertainty surrounding next year’s budget.

“We’ve been through so much,” he said. “We’re not putting our families through this again. We can’t do the job without the people that we have.”

Trustees at Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, the state’s two largest districts which combined employ about 40,000 teachers, have taken a similar approach. The two districts issued a combined 6,830 pink slips to teachers two years ago, but this year the trustees voted not to issue any.

San Francisco Unified issued 117 preliminary layoff notices to teachers compared with 197 the year before, according to the district. All but three of those teachers were rehired,

San Jose Unified did not issue any pink slips this year or last.

However, some districts are still struggling, despite the promise of Prop. 30 and substantial increases in state revenue during the next five years from a revived economy. Among districts issuing the notices, the number of affected teachers ranges from a handful to more than 100, according to information provided to EdSource.

Sacramento City Unified is issuing 118 notices, out of about 2,000 teachers, due to declining enrollments and school closures. “We’ve had a decade of cuts, so you don’t turn that around overnight,” said Gabe Ross, the district’s chief communications officer.

Oakland Unified issued 36 pink slips to teachers. Most of those – 25 – were given to adult education teachers, reflecting a shift in priorities at that district and a potential loss of $14 million due to federal sequestration. The other 11 were probationary teachers in their first or second year of teaching.

Troy Flint, director of public relations for the district, said officials “are relieved and grateful that Proposition 30 passed. But there’s a misunderstanding in what was accomplished. People thought it increased funding for education, but it did not. It just avoided another year of really drastic cuts.”

By law, the state does not have to have a budget until June 30 – and lawmakers have regularly missed that deadline. The March 15 deadline for preliminary layoff notices forces districts to make budgetary decisions months before they know what their revenue will be. The result is a flurry of layoff notices, most of which are later rescinded. The EdSource survey in 2011 found that about 80 percent of the teachers given pink slips were later rehired. A bill before the Legislature, Senate Bill 559, introduced by Sen. Bob Huff (R-Brea), would move the deadline to issue preliminary layoff notices to May 15.

At this point, most districts are building budgets assuming that their revenues will be essentially flat next year. Several factors are at play:

  • Although taxes raised from Prop. 30 will increase revenues, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to use most of that to continue to pay down deferrals, the late payments from the state that have left school districts and charter schools short of cash. Districts will get more of their money on time, but they won’t have much extra to spend next year. Small rural districts, which don’t have the borrowing capacity of larger districts, applaud this decision.
  • A great deal of uncertainty remains about federal sequestration, a 5.1 percent cut in federal aid to special education and many programs for low-income students, such as Title 1, set to take effect on July 1 for school districts. That would translate to a loss of an average of 1 percent to 2 percent of many districts’ budgets.
  • Brown is proposing a sweeping school finance reform that would provide substantial extra money phased in during the next several years, starting next year, for those districts with large proportions of English learners and low-income students. No district would get less money than it now receives. However, lawmakers may choose to make substantial changes or delay the reform, making it premature for districts to plan their budgets based on its passage.

Steven Lawrence, superintendent of Mt. Diablo Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area, said how the governor’s proposed Local Control Funding Formula will work is not clear.

“We’re waiting for the governor’s May Revise – the magic number from the Department of Finance,” he said.

Some of these 2,600 layoff notices, probably more than in the past, will not be rescinded because they reflect shifting district priorities. The Oakland district’s Flint said that the adult education teachers were laid off because “if you have to make choices, you’re going to prioritize the youngest, most vulnerable kids, not adults.”

At Clovis Unified in Fresno County, an art teacher and a teacher of German received layoff notices because not enough students signed up for their classes.

If federal sequestration is implemented, the layoffs are also more likely to become permanent, especially for small rural districts with fewer than 2,500 students – which comprise the majority of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts.

Small districts do not have the fiscal flexibility of large districts, said Dave Walrath, deputy executive director for the Small School Districts Association. Large districts can manage with reserves of 1 percent to 3 percent, but prudent small districts aim for 6 percent to 16 percent.

There is one other wrinkle, separate from sequestration, Walrath said. Small districts are dependent on federal funding through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, whose reauthorization has been caught in congressional wrangling over the budget.

Julian Union School District, a K-8 district with 341 students in rural San Diego County, typifies the challenges facing small districts. Superintendent Kevin Ogden said that with a projected increase in health insurance premiums, an enrollment decline of 18 students and federal sequestration, he would have had to issue a layoff notice to one of the district’s 25 staff members. But he was spared from doing that when a teacher announced this month that she would retire in June. “Any school layoffs are disruptive in a small town,” he said.

Senior reporter Kathryn Baron contributed to this report.

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