Teacher Karin Wehsener removes boxes from her classroom at Field Elementary School. Photo: Sam Hodgson
Karin Wehsener wasn’t laid off — but it sure felt like it as she packed her classroom up into boxes on Wednesday. Her SUV was so loaded with books, papers and posters that one box fell, scattering colored scissors across the parking lot at Field Elementary in Clairemont. She set down her boxes and started picking them up.
“I’m just so disappointed that I’m being let go,” she said.
Wehsener, a seasoned teacher who just returned to the field, was hired last August on a temporary contract that only lasts a single year. So she never had to be laid off. This is nothing new: Temporary teachers like Wehsener have long been a fixture in schools, where they fill in for teachers who are on leave or staff programs that are paid for with earmarked funding from the state or the federal government. Their salaries, benefits and working conditions are the same as those of permanent teachers.
But with budgets going south, school districts have more and more reasons to hire and cut loose teachers on temporary contracts, including the one-time-only rush of stimulus funds. And while many teachers are relieved to find jobs at all, labor leaders are worried that the phenomenon could mean a less stable, less empowered workforce that can be dismissed more easily.
School officials say it is a prudent move while districts are being gored by the growing California deficit — now estimated at $24 billion — which has led to a proposed $5.3 billion in cuts to K-12 schools statewide.
“Every time we turn around, we have to keep adjusting numbers,” said Steve Lombard, spokesman for the Oceanside Unified School District. “There’s talk of, ‘They might do this, they might do that.’ It seems like the state doesn’t understand. Or they just don’t care.”
Oceanside schools recently announced that 50 teachers whose layoffs are being canceled will only get temporary jobs. San Diego Unified did the same thing last year, before a new school board voted to give the rehired teachers standard contracts.
In Escondido, nearly a third of the high school teaching jobs listed on the website EdJoin are temporary. And the question of when temporary teachers should become permanent employees has long been a bone of contention between the Cajon Valley schools and their teachers union.
Overall numbers on the phenomenon are scant. The largest teachers union in the state, the California Teachers Association, does not track the number of temporary teachers — nor does the California Department of Education. But labor and school district attorneys and union representatives alike say that the trend seems to be growing for several reasons. One, because the billions in federal stimulus money targeted to California schools will only be available for a short time and school districts may wish to hire temporary employees with the dough, as Oceanside is doing.
Also, schools face the threat of more state cuts to come, hiring temporarily may seem more prudent than hiring permanent employees who will have to be formally laid off if budgets dive. Cutting temps is easier.
“We’re sitting here not knowing what our funding is going to be in two weeks,” said Chris Reising, director of the Southern California Teacher Recruitment and Support Center. “Districts are erring on the side of being conservative.”
Going temporary has serious implications for teachers. While permanent teachers have several chances to improve if they are accused of shoddy work — critics would say too many chances — temporary teachers can be dismissed at almost any time for almost any reason, according to attorneys familiar with the process.
Permanent teachers have a right to a job unless the school district warns them of a possible layoff in March, gives them a hearing where their layoff could be overturned on a technicality, and formally lays them off. Temporary teachers can be quietly cut loose after a year with little fanfare. Even probationary teachers, who are typically in their first two years of teaching and can be turned away at the end of each year, are a step above the temps.
“Every year our staff person says to our temporary teachers, ‘OK, now we’ll share with you your rights under the Education Code,’” said Chris Prokop, president of the Cajon Valley Education Association. “And he holds up a blank piece of paper.”
Margaret Gaston, president of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, said that she knew of no data on the topic, but described it as one of many pressures on the teaching field in a bleak economy. Nearly 30,000 teachers have been threatened with layoffs across the state. Some school districts are even considering a rare second round of layoffs in August. Losing job security, one of the attractions of teaching, is one more factor that could ultimately turn people away from education jobs.
“This is really a human resources experiment on a grand scale,” Gaston said. “Unfortunately, if they guess wrong on this, it’s the children who pay the price” in teacher shortages years later.
But given today’s economic realities, school districts say temporary hiring is a prudent option. San Diego Unified, for instance, mainly hired temporary teachers last year to avoid “increasing our footprint,” Chief Human Resources Officer Sam Wong said. That left it with more than 550 temporary teachers whose contracts expire at the end of this month. Thus, the district was able to cut jobs without having to lay off teachers, and offer an exit bonus to entice veteran employees to leave.
“I’m hoping I’ll get a position again,” said Tracy O’Brien, one of seven temporary teachers who are leaving Perry Elementary, a school in Paradise Hills. This is her second year working as a temp there. “But I guess there’s a chance that it’ll be another temporary contract.”
Not all school districts are pursuing the temporary route. Poway schools, for instance, are rehiring teachers who were going to be laid off on standard contracts. Bill Chiment, Poway’s associate superintendent of personnel, said that bringing back tenured teachers as temps would be confusing.
“What is their status?” he asked rhetorically.
California law limits the circumstances when schools can hire teachers temporarily, but the rules are dense, and debated by school districts and unions. The most common reason is to replace a teacher out on leave, which can stretch for years. Schools can also hire temporary teachers when the money comes from one of the slew of state or federal funds that are earmarked for specific purposes, such as the federal stimulus money.
Educators hired on an emergency credential could also be hired temporarily, said Jon Vanderpool, an attorney who represents teachers unions. Labor leaders say they face an uphill battle in pushing school districts to hand out standard contracts instead of temporary ones.
“We can’t compel an employer to issue a contract,” said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association. “It is not something we can do a whole lot about.”
Districts and unions also spar over how long a teacher can be a temp, and whether service counts toward tenure. Unions point to a code in state law that sets forth a way for temporary teachers who are hired for several years in the same kind of job to make their way toward tenure, counting their temporary years as time toward that goal.
However, Clifford Weiler, an attorney who frequently represents school districts, said that many school attorneys believe that there is no real cutoff point when a temporary teacher must be installed. It’s up to the district, he said.
Vanderpool cited the case of a Torrey Pines High teacher who was hired as a temp for four years and then released abruptly with no hearing. A court upheld his termination, Vanderpool said, because the teacher was working on an emergency basis as a special education teacher. Prokop, the Cajon Valley teacher, knew of temps who had worked six or seven years in a row without being hired permanently, though the school district has recently worked with them to halt the practice.
Temporary teachers might get little sympathy because they are supposed to know from the beginning that they have a one-year contract. Some teachers, however, say the issue isn’t that the jobs are temporary, but that districts do not make it clear to teachers when they are hired that their job could be eliminated at the end of the school year. Or, the teachers assumed they would be rehired like in Cajon Valley.
“It was double talk to me. I didn’t understand it,” said Linda Hirschmiller, a kindergarten teacher at Johnson Elementary in El Cajon. She is one out of at least 69 temporary teachers in Cajon Valley schools, was first hired in January 2007, and has worked in the same classroom for two years now. “I thought they’d eventually move me along. That’s just how I thought it worked.”
Wehsener says teaching is her chosen career, and after a dozen years away from the schools, she wants back in. But with no job in sight, she mulls defecting to the business world, where she once worked.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “But I’m not sure that it’s really worth it.”
Value investigative reporting? Support it. Donate Now.