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News / Clark County News

Local teachers face job uncertainty

Looming deadline triggers notice of staff cuts; smaller number likely to lose jobs

By Howard Buck
Published: May 12, 2011, 12:00am

Facing uncertainty as Olympia haggles over details of a two-year state budget sure to impact school funding, Clark County school districts began distributing non-renewal notices to hundreds of certificated teachers on Wednesday.

Nearly 2,000 Evergreen Public Schools employees will receive non-renewal notices for the 2011-12 school year.

In reality, fewer than one in 10 would actually see their job disappear, under a worst-case budget scenario feared by the district. To those unlucky 180, Evergreen gave a formal reduction-in-force (RIF) notice, the first such warning to teachers issued there in decades.

Battle Ground Public Schools principals personally handed 35 RIF notices to teachers on Wednesday.

In Camas, eight classroom teachers got the same unsettling news. It’s a process being repeated in other districts across the county and Washington state.

Vancouver Public Schools is an exception: Last week, Superintendent Steve Webb handed belt-tightening recommendations to the school board that avoid teacher layoffs.

Districts are left hanging on how much school funding will be cut when a final state budget deal is signed, ending the 30-day special legislative session that began April 26. The rumor mill already hints at a second overtime session.

But state law requires districts to notify certificated employees by each May 15 about the status of their contracts for the next school year, spurring this week’s pre-emptive action.

“It’s not the best day,” said Gloria Smith, president of the Evergreen Education Association, the district’s teachers union.

She had warned members by email, but that didn’t ease the pain nor answer all questions they raised, she said.

“Some are surprised, others knew it was coming,” Smith said. “We (the union) knew it was coming. But we didn’t expect it to be this many,” she said. The union had collaborated with Evergreen on the notice process, and pressed for a smaller scope of RIFs, she said.

However, district officials, following the advice of legal counsel, chose a blanket approach to reflect the worst-case scenario of $26 million in combined state-and-federal funding reductions. (A more probable result for Evergreen, given competing House- and Senate-backed plans in Olympia, is about half that amount).

That’s why all Evergreen certificated employees — including all principals, the superintendent and other administrative staff, as well as teachers, specialists and counselors — were to receive notice of contract non-renewal by Thursday, said Jerry Piland, human resources manager.

In limbo

Changes adopted in Olympia could include mandated salary reductions or fewer class days. The Senate budget calls for 3 percent pay cuts, in line with other state workers. Gov. Chris Gregoire now proposes a 1.9 percent teacher pay cut, and a shortened school year has entered the funding conversation.

If funding cuts aren’t as deep as those called for by the Senate, some of the Evergreen employees would be issued new contracts and would keep their jobs.

Positions on the possible chopping block include classroom teachers — as many as 130, under one district option — school librarians, teaching staff assistants and many elementary and high school counselors.

Without RIF notices by May 15, certificated workers with ongoing contracts would be guaranteed a position for 2011-12.

“Our basic problem is, until the Legislature finalizes the budget and we know what our budget is, we have to cover our bases and make sure we don’t get into a situation where we have too many people on contract,” Piland said.

Even if Evergreen does eliminate several positions, several teachers with RIFs might be rehired to fill vacancies that result from retirements, relocation and other normal attrition each summer.

That’s what happened in Battle Ground only two years ago. In April 2009, the then-cash-strapped district gave 77 teachers RIF notices. By September, only 20 positions had been eliminated.

The same is true in other districts. So, Wednesday’s news, while about as welcome as the returning rain, was not all bleak.

Still, educators will remain on edge until Olympia acts. If layoffs do ensue, there will be a domino effect of shuffling teachers within each school building, some more than others, that would affect many classrooms and students.

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“It’s going to be a long summer, for the principals and the (human resources) folks,” predicted Gregg Herrington, Battle Ground schools spokesman.

Similar district deadlines to notify nonteaching, or classified, workers of pending layoffs also approach, coming by month’s end in some cases.