Cutbacks To Hit Teachers The Hardest

Layoffs, bigger classes, shrunken pay all weigh heavily on Payson school district

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Payson Unified School District’s 147 teachers will likely bear the brunt of another round of budget cuts this year — shouldering half the projected layoffs, facing significantly larger classes, doing without new textbooks and materials and most likely absorbing a pay cut as the state phases out stipends for teachers with extra training.

Despite the piling on of cuts, few teachers so far have shown up at board meetings or special meetings to oppose the cuts.

Moreover, parents have reacted to the prospects of a school closure and other cutbacks with more sorrow than anger, according to Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

“People understand there are some tough financial times ahead,” said O’Brien of the muted reaction to a committee’s conclusion that the only way for the district to address a nearly $900,000 deficit is to close Frontier Elementary School, significantly increase class sizes districtwide and cut about 20 employees — half of them teachers.

“Parents understand that this is not based on a choice from a multitude of options. We’ve been pushed into a corner of no options and I sense a sad resignation from just about everybody.”

Of course, that may change as the district begins drawing up layoff lists and struggles to absorb substantially additional state cuts, including a proposal to phase out stipends that now boost pay by $2,000 to $4,000 annually for most of the teachers in the district.

As a result, the teachers who survive the layoffs will find themselves teaching more students for less money — in a district that will have to struggle mightily to maintain the extras like music, arts, vocational and gifted classes.

The 2,500-student district’s payroll has shrunk sharply in the past two years. Currently, the district has 147 teachers, 10 administrators and 162 classified staff. Last year, administrators bore the brunt of the layoffs. This year, the teachers will likely suffer the biggest cuts.

O’Brien said he hoped attrition will reduce the need for layoffs and he knows of two teachers who plan to retire — but that turnover has been much lower than normal lately, because few schools have been hiring.

The school consolidation committee that recommended the closure of Frontier and the creation of one K-2 and one 3-5 school also recommended laying off about 20 employees. The school closure will save about $300,000 and the layoffs would save another $600,000.

Last hired, first fired

Some organizations use a “last hired, first fired” approach to layoffs, protecting workers with seniority. However, two years ago the Arizona Legislature gutted teacher contracts and tenure systems statewide by passing a law that forbids school districts from considering either seniority or tenure when laying off teachers due to budget problems.

The district would face a loss of funding if its teachers don’t qualify as “highly qualified” under federal rules. That means they must have a credential, plus certification in their subject matter.

Because of the need to keep its “highly qualified” teachers, the district cannot move teachers from the middle school to the high school or let a biology teacher take over a physics course.

A certified high school English teacher can teach any English course, but not social studies — or any middle school course, much less shift over to the elementary school.

New math, science classes

The state recently added a required math and science class for students graduating in 2013 and 2014.

That means the district has to add math and science classes at the high school, even though it already has a shortage of such teachers. As a result, the district may end up having to hire math or science teachers at the same moment it sends out layoff notices to English, social studies or elementary school teachers.

“I’m not disagreeing with the need to add math and science requirements,” said O’Brien. “I just wish that they would have funded it.”

The state used to let districts cope with a crisis by granting emergency certification to teachers outside their core subjects, but the state largely eliminated that practice.

The district’s policy governing layoffs considers qualifications and certifications needed for the “highly qualified” designation, overall teaching experience, academic training, ability and past contributions to the district, but not tenure or seniority.

Although the consolidation committee’s report made it sound like the class size increase will only affect the elementary schools, in fact teachers will likely find themselves with larger classes almost across the board — with a few specialized exceptions like Advanced Placement and Special Education classes or rare advanced classes like calculus or physics.

Currently, most elementary school classes have 20 to 25 students.

After the cuts and layoffs, that number will probably rise to 25 to 30, with first- and second-grade classes smaller than fourth- and fifth-grade classes, said O’Brien.

Middle school classes now average 27 to 33 students, depending on the subject. Next year, they’ll likely gain one to three students.

Most high school classes currently have at least 30 students, with the exception of some specialized classes. Next year, the average class size will likely rise by 5 to 10 percent, said Casey.

Less individualized attention

Studies suggest that as classes get larger, students get less individualized attention and teachers alter lesson plans — for instance not assigning writing assignments they don’t have time to read and edit. Studies do show that students in classes with fewer than 18 students have significantly higher test scores. However, many national studies have failed to document a decline in student test scores as a result of incremental increases in class sizes.

“In theory, I don’t disagree” with that research, said O’Brien, “but that doesn’t mean that increasing class sizes to unreasonable numbers doesn’t matter.”

Just to add insult to injury, one provision in Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed 2011 budget could inflict an effective pay decrease on Payson teachers coping with larger classes.

Teacher stipends

Payson is one of 30 districts statewide participating in the state-funded “Career Ladder” program, which offers teachers, who with additional training, earn stipends of up to $6,000 annually. Only a handful of Payson teachers get the maximum stipend, but about 80 percent of the teachers in the district have qualified for stipends of $3,000 to $4,000.

The state some years ago barred any additional districts from enrolling in the program, which provoked a lawsuit from the Gilbert School District.

Last year, the state told districts already in the program that newly hired teachers could no longer get stipends.

Gov. Brewer has proposed cutting the stipend for those who already have it by 20 percent annually until it disappears.

Although the accumulation of cuts has yet to provoke the sorts of outspoken protests that attended last year’s decision to lay off the high school principal, vice principal and athletic director, it has taken its toll on the already battered district morale.

“I talked to all the principals yesterday,” said O’Brien. “Everyone’s suffering from the turtle effect: People just want to withdraw.”

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