Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
A sixth grade math teacher helps two students during a lesson about math and music.
The article was updated March 13 with the correct link for districts on the state fiscal watch list.

The board of San Francisco Unified voted last week to eliminate positions for 300 staff; in Mt. Diablo Unified in Contra Costa County, the number of cuts is 99. And more jobs in more districts will be on the line in coming days as school boards decide whether to scale back teachers and administrators, janitors and office staff in a rush to meet a March 15 deadline to formally notify employees who could be out of work next year.

For parents, teachers, new board members and lawmakers, news of potential teacher layoffs no doubt will seem strange and inexplicable. There hasn’t been a big round of job cuts in many districts since the end of the Great Recession a decade ago; and 2022 is a year of record staff shortages and record school funding: $20-plus billion more under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget, plus a $15 billion cushion from the last round of federal Covid relief. So, why should anyone be laid off now?

The California Teachers Association says no one should be. “It doesn’t make sense for districts to lay off employees in the midst of a critical employee shortage. Layoff notices create unnecessary fear among educators, and shouldn’t be happening,” said Claudia Briggs, communications manager for the union.

The far majority of districts won’t issue layoff notices this year, although the final numbers won’t be known until after March 15. The 27 financially precarious districts on the state’s latest fiscal watch list, such as West Contra Costa, Sacramento City and Vallejo, are more likely to be among those that may. Neither Mt. Diablo nor San Francisco is on the list.

Some districts that do issue pink slips will rescind a portion, if not most, after resignations and retirements create openings this spring and summer. But meanwhile, districts may see that young teachers they give notice to won’t wait to see what happens. In a tight labor market, plenty of districts will be happy to recruit them.

“With a huge demand and dry pipeline, there is the risk that teachers will look elsewhere” or leave the profession, said Mike Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, a school finance agency charged with helping school districts solve financial troubles before they become swamped by them.

“Districts could lose them to other areas where they feel more appreciated,” Briggs said.

Fine agreed that “even a preliminary notice can be devastating to the person getting it.” But districts, he added, “don’t offer layoff notices for the hell of it.” The reasons behind the decisions are complex and usually years in the making, he said.

Districts do control some factors, like pay raises they agreed to and steadily declining levels of reserve funds they failed to address. But other factors beyond their control have forced their hand on layoff notices now: a layoff law that’s out of sync with the Legislature’s budgeting cycle; lots of unknowns, including what Newsom and the lawmakers will negotiate in June and how many kids will show up to school in August; and the biggest factor for many districts — declining enrollments, which will shrink their state revenue.

Bad timing

Districts must notify teachers by March 15 if they may lose their jobs next school year through a layoff. That creates a two-month period for hearings to contest layoff notices and for veteran teachers to claim protected jobs held by teachers with less seniority. By mid-May, final layoff letters go out, giving laid-off teachers plenty of time to look for work elsewhere.

Advocates for low-income children challenged layoffs by seniority, tenure awarded after two years on the job, and other workplace protections in the 2012 Vergara v. California lawsuit. They argued that the last-in, first-out system of layoffs disproportionately harms low-income schools, staffed by new teachers, and doesn’t factor in teacher effectiveness. The plaintiffs lost when a divided California Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2016, and the system remains embedded in law.

The challenge for districts is the timing of the state budget. The Legislature doesn’t pass its budget until mid-June, and the latest forecasts project state revenues will be as much as $20 billion higher than Newsom’s forecast. That would translate to $8 billion more for K-12 schools and community colleges but, for now, districts can base their revenues for next year only on what’s known, which is the budget the governor proposed in January.

The California School Boards Association and other school lobbies are pleading with legislators to put any additional revenue into their base funding for core spending and not more one-time funding or new programs that will add new expenses.

“We need money for the base to protect the instructional capacity of our schools,” said David Haglund, superintendent of Pleasanton Unified. The district gave layoff notices to 35 temporary teachers who have been filling in for teachers who transferred to teach independent study this year, and he hopes to eventually rehire many of them.

Many legislators sound sympathetic, but for now, districts aren’t supposed to count on what might happen when deciding layoffs.

What’s also different this year is that for the first time, classified employees, including kitchen workers, janitors and special education aides, must also be given notices by March 15, or else their jobs will be shielded from layoffs. Oakland Unified’s board is not planning to consider any layoff notices for teachers, but it did vote to tentatively eliminate 80 classified jobs, including 16 funded by grants — a number expected to drop by March 15. But San Francisco’s board rejected a consultant’s recommendation to cut 47 teaching aides, leaving the district obligated to pay them next year.

Declining enrollment

Even before the pandemic, the California Department of Finance had predicted an 11% drop in statewide school enrollment by 2031. The pandemic appears to have accelerated it, with a drop of 2.6% in 2020-21 alone. Instead of rebounding this year, enrollment is estimated to have dropped an additional 2%, Fine said, amid the disruptions caused by the delta variant, followed by omicron.

About 60% of districts are experiencing a decline in enrollment, Fine said, although the numbers vary greatly, from big losses in Los Angeles Unified and most of the Bay Area to increases in many rural counties and the Sacramento area. San Francisco Unified has lost about 9,000, or 18%, of its students since 2014, while San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest district, projects that its 96,000 students next year will be 7% less than three years ago.

Districts are funded not on total enrollment but on the percentage of enrolled students who show up every day — the average daily attendance over the course of a year. Covid has created havoc with attendance; chronic absenteeism has soared, as have absences due to infections or exposure to the virus; many districts are experiencing 6% to 8% lower attendance rates.

The combination of lower enrollment and attendance would have walloped most districts’ budgets already, but for the current year and previous two years, the Legislature allowed districts to claim their pre-pandemic average daily attendance for the Local Control Funding Formula. With this assurance, districts could postpone the need to reduce staff through attrition. But that hold-harmless provision is due to expire with the 2022-23 budget. Since districts will base next year’s budget on this year’s real attendance numbers, they could feel repercussions all at once.

“Paying attention (to declining enrollment) over the past several years would have taken care of the problem gradually, but many districts did not act,” Fine said. And that has contributed to layoff notices.

Newsom and legislative leaders are proposing various fixes to reduce the financial shock that a “fiscal cliff” will impose on many districts. One proposal is to extend the “hold harmless” provision for another year. Another, authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, in Senate Bill 830, would switch to funding based on total enrollment, not attendance; this would require an additional $3 billion in annual funding, with most of the money shoring up low-income districts with lower attendance rates.

In his budget, Newsom has proposed giving districts the option of funding on a three-year average rate of daily attendance. That would soften the enrollment decline next year by combining two years of pre-pandemic enrollment and this year’s actual, lower attendance rates and enrollment. That would produce a soft landing but still, for many districts, funding on a lower average daily attendance.

Abundant one-time dollars

Meanwhile, many districts have been stockpiling money. The California Department of Education reported this week that the average unified school district ended 2020-21 with an unrestricted general fund balance of 22.4%; in a presentation to the school board this week, Los Angeles Unified administration projected the district will end 2021-22 with an extraordinary balance of $2.8 billion, 27% of its general fund (see Page 11).

Unspent state and federal Covid aid is also providing short-term financial relief. The biggest source is the American Rescue Plan Act, the last and biggest chunk of federal pandemic aid for K-12 schools. Of the $15.5 billion for California, $13.6 billion has been distributed directly to districts. Because allocations are distributed based on poverty-based Title I formulas, the differences in allocations are vast: a few hundred dollars per student for wealthy districts and more than $5,000 per student to Los Angeles Unified alone.

Usable through September 2024, the American Rescue Plan Act is intended to fund summer programs, accelerated learning, air filtration systems in classrooms, curriculum materials, teacher training and more people — counselors, social workers, tutors and special education teachers and aides. But it also included a catch-all option for districts to spend what’s necessary “to continue to employ existing staff.”

That’s what San Francisco Unified said it planned to do with more than half of its $97 million. But that alone wouldn’t solve its $125 million budget shortfall, and so the board approved saving $50 million by cutting 151 teachers, counselors and social workers, 51 managers and 62 other staff.

In its Path to Recovery plan approved last year, Los Angeles Unified committed to hiring 7,000 new employees, including psychiatric social workers, counselors, intervention teachers and classroom teachers to reduce class sizes. It was an unrealistic goal, given the job market; as of last fall, only half were filled, leaving the district with hundreds of millions of unspent dollars. The district can use the funding to tide it over for two years and avoid layoffs and school closures for now. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho will dodge an immediate budget crisis during his first months on the job and can plan for a new reality: Enrollment – 747,000 in 2003 – is projected to fall below 400,000 in 2023-24.

Mt. Diablo Unified, in Contra Costa County, previously on the state’s fiscal watch list because of declining reserves, couldn’t wait. The district, with 30,000 students a few years ago, is down to 28,000, a drop of 6.6%, with a loss of more than $22 million in state revenue. At the same time, Superintendent Adam Clark, in his second year on the job, has felt pressure to grant a pay raise to teachers, who haven’t received an increase since 2017. The tradeoff for a 7% raise over three years plus a 3% bonus — the district’s “last and final” offer — is a reduction in force. It would save $10.1 million with cuts that include 22 elementary teachers, five secondary teachers, three librarians and 14 instructional aides. The Mt. Diablo Education Association is threatening to strike for a bigger raise.

“It’s been a battle fighting misinformation that the district is flush with money that can be used for salaries,” Clark said. “Our structural deficit has not been addressed.”

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  1. Steve Johnson 2 months ago2 months ago

    Follow up. You might want to know that my district never gave us a written notice. We were told verbally in early March, but nothing in writing. I tell you, what arrogance. They say they want transparency and want to build community, but it apparently does not apply to management.

  2. SD Parent 2 months ago2 months ago

    I'm wondering if all school districts are actually using the same per pupil funding assumptions to budget. For example, San Diego Unified is using the "three year average" in enrollment (per its SACS report) and is assuming big growth in Universal TK and a return of "COVID students" that would actually bump enrollment in 2022-23 to soften the 7% drop in enrollment over the past three years. Meanwhile, ADA is currently running at … Read More

    I’m wondering if all school districts are actually using the same per pupil funding assumptions to budget. For example, San Diego Unified is using the “three year average” in enrollment (per its SACS report) and is assuming big growth in Universal TK and a return of “COVID students” that would actually bump enrollment in 2022-23 to soften the 7% drop in enrollment over the past three years. Meanwhile, ADA is currently running at 90% (5% lower than historical).

    Given that other districts are talking about layoffs, could some districts just be budgeting with a more fiscally conservative assumptions–such as per pupil funding will be based on ADA and/or actual enrollment (rather than an average)–to hedge their bets until the Legislature approves a budget and a per pupil (or ADA) formula?

  3. el 2 months ago2 months ago

    The one-time dollars are great and they're being spent on good projects, needed projects. But, at the same time, our ongoing funding dollars are getting leaner, and the heart of our school is the staff we employ to run it. If we had full local control of our money, we would choose to spend it on the people who run our core programs instead of on the super neat summer program we're running or on … Read More

    The one-time dollars are great and they’re being spent on good projects, needed projects. But, at the same time, our ongoing funding dollars are getting leaner, and the heart of our school is the staff we employ to run it. If we had full local control of our money, we would choose to spend it on the people who run our core programs instead of on the super neat summer program we’re running or on some of the facilities improvements we’re funding. We’d like to add mental health staff. We’d like to ensure our teachers and support staff are paid an appropriate and competitive wage. We’d like to put money into the reserve so that we weren’t facing layoffs 2-3 years out due to an ADA drop.

    The March 15 date is frustratingly early. It means a lot of notices are sent out where everyone believes that they won’t be carried out. It creates stress for staff, and churn, and yet districts are often in a situation where without hoped-for-but-not-sure funding they would not be able to meet payroll.

    It is exceedingly hard to communicate to either staff or community why an expensive project is going forward while layoffs to core functions are also contemplated. I can barely explain it to myself.

    Having funding contingent on ADA and not enrollment – which is unusual compared to other states – penalizes schools in a pandemic, as well as a world where we can expect serious endemic infections to continue. Schools have to run every day as if every enrolled student will arrive. We don’t save money if a student is home sick. I can appreciate that the idea is to build incentives to get schools to get every student to class every day but that’s not actually necessarily always the best thing for every student (if they are sick, and especially also infectious) nor under the control of the school. Enrollment based funding would be extremely helpful, especially for schools who serve rural or at-risk communities. I feel confident teachers and staff will still be extremely committed to getting students to school and to ensuring that they get every bit of learning and instruction we can deliver to them.

    Replies

    • Adam Hampton 2 months ago2 months ago

      Salient points and well expressed.

    • Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

      Good discussion, so let’s look at some points…. “our ongoing funding dollars are getting leaner” The state released the 2021 “SACS” financial data last week, and it shows the exact opposite. In the last decade (since approval of Prop 30 to “better fund education”), per ADA funding has been literally skyrocketing upward, at a rate of 7.09% per year. That’s almost three times the rate of inflation. How would you define that as “leaner”? “If … Read More

      Good discussion, so let’s look at some points….

      “our ongoing funding dollars are getting leaner”

      The state released the 2021 “SACS” financial data last week, and it shows the exact opposite. In the last decade (since approval of Prop 30 to “better fund education”), per ADA funding has been literally skyrocketing upward, at a rate of 7.09% per year. That’s almost three times the rate of inflation. How would you define that as “leaner”?

      “If we had full local control of our money”

      You largely do. The LCFF has very few categorical designated funding priorities. As a matter of fact, local control is more a problem than a benefit, because it has allowed districts to do what they like best – spend ever-increasing amounts of money on themselves, in their own pay and benefits. If pay and benefits for existing employees (80-90% of most districts cost) had not risen at correspondingly large rates, there would be plenty of money to fund additional programs and services for our kids. But instead our districts choose to put that in employee pockets, leading to compensation levels that often greatly exceed what comparably educated people in the same area make.

      “We’d like to ensure our teachers and support staff are paid an appropriate and competitive wage”

      I don’t know about your district, but currently in most of the districts I’ve examined we see wages that are well in excess of what employees would be making outside education in private industry. That seems pretty “appropriate and competitive”.

      “We’d like to put money into the reserve”

      That’s the opposite of what many districts are doing. My own district (Oceanside Unified) just voted to decrease their reserve, not increase it. Because they also voted to give district employees $10 million in bonus raises, which they could not afford if they could not spend down their reserves.

      “The March 15 date is frustratingly early”

      I agree it makes no sense, but I believe that deadline was set in legislation that was supported by the union, was it not?

      “Having funding contingent on ADA and not enrollment” also incentivizes districts to implement programs that keep kids coming to school. Which, I think, is supposed to be our objective?

      Other than “other people do it that way” what particular reason is there for compensating a district for students it’s not educating? “But Johnny’s mom lets him stay up late” is hardly a good reason to do something that is not best for our kids, right?

      “I feel confident teachers and staff will still be extremely committed to getting students to school”

      Certainly most would, so why don’t we simply reward those who are good at it and incentivize those who are not to get better?

  4. Jonathan Slakey 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you John for sharing this update on district plans!

    One thing about this posting… are we sure these are teacher layoffs? I only scanned the SFUSD minutes but it looked like most separations are administrative.

  5. kristina l Rogstad 2 months ago2 months ago

    Todd Madison,
    I was hired in 2016 with Mt Diablo with 2 master’s and a special ed teaching degree and made $57,794 and after 5 years, with no cost of living raise, I made $65,695. My health insurance was $247 about to go up to about $350 a month. I am not sure how you figure a median total compensation is $120,481. I am not getting $54,786 in compensation.

    Replies

    • Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

      Thanks, but you need to dig a bit deeper into your compensation. I won't go into the specifics for you here, but your compensation is public record and you can look yourself up on Transparent California if you'd like. $120,481 is the median, meaning half make more, half make less. How that is calculated is simple - from the district's pay records, identify certificated employees, remove any who did not make the minimum pay … Read More

      Thanks, but you need to dig a bit deeper into your compensation. I won’t go into the specifics for you here, but your compensation is public record and you can look yourself up on Transparent California if you’d like.

      $120,481 is the median, meaning half make more, half make less. How that is calculated is simple – from the district’s pay records, identify certificated employees, remove any who did not make the minimum pay for a teacher in the district (meaning they did not work a full year), and calculate the median for the rest. Somewhat simple math.

      You did not just make $65,695. Your district contributed 18% of that salary to your retirement above and beyond what private individuals get from their companies – that means you made an additional $11,825 above that which everyone outside government employment does not make.

      Your premium of $247 is less than half the private industry average of $560/month. That means you were given an additional $313/month, or $3756/year that private employees are not given.

      The total of both is $15,581. A private individual, to have the same retirement and healthcare plan as you, would have to pay an additional $15,581 out of their own pocket. You don’t.

      If that was constant through a 30 year career that would be $467,430 – almost a half million dollars that a private employee doesn’t get – and of course that number will go up each year, not stay the same.

      And also of course if that money were in private hands it could be invested, making the end result likely well over a million dollars.

      If you feel none of that counts because it’s not in your paycheck, I suggest you ask a private employee how they would like it if their employer gave them an extra half million dollars in retirement contributions and healthcare coverage.

    • Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

      And, just fyi, I think you're probably being shorted on salary for the same reasons I outlined elsewhere. I'm not familiar with the Mt. Diablo step-and-column, but if it's like most others it has a larger bump at the end. Taking that bump down to the normal for the rest of the schedule would likely have allowed your district to start you at a rate several thousand dollars a year higher than they … Read More

      And, just fyi, I think you’re probably being shorted on salary for the same reasons I outlined elsewhere. I’m not familiar with the Mt. Diablo step-and-column, but if it’s like most others it has a larger bump at the end.

      Taking that bump down to the normal for the rest of the schedule would likely have allowed your district to start you at a rate several thousand dollars a year higher than they did, but your union designed that plan to benefit teachers approaching retirement rather than new teachers starting out.

  6. Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

    Love the detail in this story, thanks John, but a bit curious... "At the same time, Superintendent Adam Clark, in his second year on the job, has felt pressure to grant a pay raise to teachers, who haven’t received an increase since 2017. " In 2017 the median total compensation of a full-time Mt. Diablo teacher was $104,623. In 2020 the median total compensation $120,481. Unless Excel is broken, that means the compound growth rate was 5.34%/year, which is … Read More

    Love the detail in this story, thanks John, but a bit curious…

    “At the same time, Superintendent Adam Clark, in his second year on the job, has felt pressure to grant a pay raise to teachers, who haven’t received an increase since 2017. ”

    In 2017 the median total compensation of a full-time Mt. Diablo teacher was $104,623.

    In 2020 the median total compensation $120,481.

    Unless Excel is broken, that means the compound growth rate was 5.34%/year, which is a bit more than double the CA inflation rate.

    Certainly total comp is not pay-only. In pay only their increase was from $83,669 to $85,343, which is only a 1.30% per year raise. About half inflation.

    Regardless, unless we define “raise” differently than the dictionary does, that’s still a raise.

    And anyone who does not think having the district contribute 18% more than private employees get to their retirement plan is worthwhile compensation that should be considered is welcome to give a portion of their retirement to me – I’d be happy to provide an account number for the transfer…!

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

      Thanks, Todd.

      Point well taken. As you often note, there are tradeoffs: It’s difficult to raise pay when contributions to CalSTRS and CalPERS have escalated as they have during the past decade. Newer teachers, who’d choose putting the money toward pay than retirement if they had a choice, which they don’t, lose out.

      • Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

        New teachers certainly get the short end of the stick, but I often see "teacher pay" defined in terms of "starting salary" only - when of course the majority of teachers are farther along in the schedule. New teachers also get shafted by their own union. Perhaps a story sometime, but if you look at most salary schedules they have a somewhat consistent set of periodic raises over the period. Usually that works out … Read More

        New teachers certainly get the short end of the stick, but I often see “teacher pay” defined in terms of “starting salary” only – when of course the majority of teachers are farther along in the schedule.

        New teachers also get shafted by their own union. Perhaps a story sometime, but if you look at most salary schedules they have a somewhat consistent set of periodic raises over the period. Usually that works out to about 3 – 3.5% in the ones I’ve looked at. Oceanside Unified is 3.48%.

        EXCEPT the final step – right before retirement. Oceanside’s “step 22” is 6%. And given that’s 6% on the highest possible pay, in real dollars, that’s a huge bump.

        If Oceanside simply reduced that last bump to the same 3.48% they get throughout the schedule, they could add several thousand dollars a year to starting teacher pay. And probably eliminate the first-two-year freeze (no increase for the first two in their schedule.)

        That is completely, totally the union’s call. They negotiate that agreement, if they simply allocated the same dollars across the schedule in a different way, the district would not care.

        But they don’t, because having a low starting pay plays into the “poor underpaid teacher” myth, the “starting wages are too low” truth, and greatly benefits more senior teachers who are now going to retire with final pay rates that produce higher pension payouts.

        When the Union reps lips are moving we hear much about the difficulty of attracting people to the teaching profession, almost always blamed on “low starting wages.” The fact that the union itself helps create that problem is never said, anywhere..

        I think the J90 data probably has the detail to figure out how much we could raise starting salaries statewide if we simply modified the last-step raises, I just haven’t done those numbers….

        • Cameron Heyvaert 2 months ago2 months ago

          Great insight Todd. Thank you for the article, John. As a new teacher trying to figure out the budgeting and hiring worlds of education, this is very helpful.

          • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

            Glad it was helpful, Cameron.

      • Jay 2 months ago2 months ago

        In addition to added contributions to CalSTRS as mandated by the previous governor, it should also be worth noting that total compensation also includes health benefits, which have also risen due to inflation. While total compensation is important to note when discussing district budgets, it would also be fair to mention teacher salaries after required CalSTRS contributions since these are required. I’m not saying the pension is not a great benefit, but stating the compensation … Read More

        In addition to added contributions to CalSTRS as mandated by the previous governor, it should also be worth noting that total compensation also includes health benefits, which have also risen due to inflation. While total compensation is important to note when discussing district budgets, it would also be fair to mention teacher salaries after required CalSTRS contributions since these are required. I’m not saying the pension is not a great benefit, but stating the compensation a teacher receives to live off of should also be considered.

    • Bob Maythews 2 months ago2 months ago

      Todd, pay attention to data. No way that salary you referenced in the excel makes sense UNLESS it includes administrator salaries with ~$500k for superintendents then yes. Even Mountain View Los Altos with high starting salaries isn’t close to that. Come on, unbelievable that data can’t be analyzed simply and double checked with a simple google search. Absolutely reckless and unbelievable