Thursday, April 10, 2008 | When the new grandiose Lincoln High opened to students this year, it attracted too many students. It also attracted a young teacher from Chula Vista, Guillermo Gomez.
I met Gomez at the teacher’s lounge during lunch at Lincoln High recently. Gomez and his colleagues were planning marches and various ways to get their students to express their displeasure with proposed school budget cuts around the state — cuts that, if fully implemented as proposed, would mean 913 school teachers would be laid off districtwide.
Gomez would be one of them. A year and a half ago, dressed in black formal wear and smiling, the young teacher accepted one of the four awards given each year to the “teachers of the year” in the county. He had been a teacher for 10 years at Vista Square Elementary School in Chula Vista.
Despite his success, the opportunity to teach at Lincoln High School’s new School of Social Justice intrigued him, and Gomez moved not only into a classroom with older kids but into a new school district — San Diego Unified. He says he took a $10,000 pay cut for the chance to teach at Lincoln.
No doubt, Lincoln is an attractive place. There are tennis courts on top of the parking garage and each classroom has a state-of-the-art multimedia system. The executive principal, Mel Collins, strides around the campus barking instructions at security personnel and haranguing loiterers unsure, or unwilling to say, where they’re supposed to be.
At the old Lincoln, Collins said, a group of three young men, chatting and looking out over the baseball field during class time would have been overlooked, if seen at all. Not anymore, he says. In 15 minutes, I saw the principal dress down three security guards — one for sitting down.
It feels like good things are happening at Lincoln. Gomez clearly likes it. Not too long ago, though, his new employers repaid this enthusiasm with a pink slip.
Now, talk to most anyone in the education world and they’ll assure you that Gomez and 912 of his colleagues who have gotten the pink slips probably won’t lose their jobs. They’ll say the governor and Legislature will come to a compromise and the eventual cuts will probably be small enough that they can be “absorbed.” You have to love that term in discussions about government budgets. It usually means that the infection of troubled times is handled not with a shocking amputation of services or fat but with something more like an injection of some kind of calming but lethal poison into the system. The symptoms of the budget’s troubles are delayed, but the system’s bones rot.
“Everybody knows there’s not going to be a 10 percent hit to education,” said Camille Zombro, the president of the local teachers union, the San Diego Education Association. She added: “One or two percent can be absorbed.”
Absorbed. That can be reassuring I suppose, but all Gomez actually knows right now is that he and several of his colleagues got a letter putting them on notice that soon they could be let go. A letter like that has to make you think about things. It has a way of making you worry.
He has a lot of company. Gomez is one of 18 certified teachers at Lincoln who got the letter. It’s not because the district and school don’t value him and the others. They might like them very much. The problem is that Gomez is considered a new teacher in the city of San Diego. His years in Chula Vista mean nothing to the blind bureaucracy of school contracts.
And since Lincoln is a new school that recruited a lot of new teachers and transfers from other districts and charter schools, the disruption of layoffs — if they aren’t fictional — will be exaggerated. If the district must cut, Lincoln will lose 18 teachers. This is compared to seven at Clairemont High School, eight at Mira Mesa, 10 at Morse High and nine at Point Loma High School.
The same thing is happening — though worse — at Jackson Elementary School, just south of San Diego State in east San Diego, where 24 of the school’s 26 teachers received notices that they will be laid off if the budget cuts are as severe as they possibly can be.
Sure, they will be replaced. But the people who come in will have gotten bumped down from schools where they wanted to be. They may have done all they could, in fact, to get away from places like Jackson and Lincoln.
“The folks I’m talking about, the ones who may lose their job are folks who wanted to be here,” Collins told me. “This is not to say we won’t embrace new folks who have been around the block, but we like what we have now. I’m going to be reluctant to see people who only wanted to be here to have a job.”
Why is this happening? Lincoln may look like one of the nicest schools in the district, but this fancy facility has only been around a year.
The neighborhood has been desperately trying to pull its residents up to a higher standard of living for decades. During a time when residents of wealthier neighborhoods scorn the development industry, for example, the San Diego city councilman who represents the area actively courts developers, grocery stores, commerce and progress of any kind.
A gleaming new campus might be a symbol of a better future but its construction was not the end goal. The school is supposed to be a means to an end.
The old Lincoln was troubled. The new Lincoln is just getting started. If you rotate out a fifth of its teachers after the first year, you’re not giving it much of a chance at the beginning. Why would anyone choose to hammer Jackson and Lincoln and leave other schools in more prosperous neighborhoods much less affected?
The answer is simple. They’re trying to pretend like no voluntary choice is actually being made. State law ensures that when layoffs happen, they happen to the teachers with the least amount of seniority. This allows both the teachers union and school administration officials to shrug their shoulders. They hide behind the formula. The school system is divided into hundreds of compartments, but when they look at issues like this, they look at teachers as one large population, out of which the youngest, and supposedly least experienced, must be culled.
District officials say they are literally comparing teachers down to the day they were hired. If they need to cut 900 teachers, they look at how many teachers they have in the school population, figure out how many might already retire and then determine where the seniority cut off is. If you started with the district, in the way the union deems OK, one day before that, you’re OK. One day after, though, and you’ve got to turn that pink slip into something to eat.
The blind eye of the bureaucracy and union contract, however, does not see the seniority Gomez and others have. Gomez, after all, was teacher of the year.
In the teachers lounge that day were some of Gomez’ colleagues, many of whom had also received notices that their employment was tenuous.
There was Edward Moller, an art teacher, who’s been a teacher for nine years — in the San Diego Unified School District. But because his first job was at O’Farrell Community School, a charter school, he’s denied seniority under rules devised by the teachers union and district. Moller was let go after cuts from O’Farrell last year. But his colleague, an English teacher named Chris Dier, left O’Farrell just because he wanted to be part of the new Lincoln High.
Dier’s enthusiasm was also welcomed with a pink slip.
We might hope that laws are created on the basis of logic and for the public good, and if that were the case with this one, the only possible rationality for it would be that a teacher who had been with the district for one day longer than another is more important to us and to the students than his or her colleague who may have started a day later.
But how does that logic work when you meet teachers like Moller, Gomez and Dier? All experienced — just not the way the union likes them.
Again, many say that these three and the hundreds of others handed pink slips shouldn’t worry too much. This is either a ploy or just an overreaction.
But a guy like Moller has to act on his pink slip. He can’t rest his financial future on the blind hope that the teachers union president is correct when she scoffs that the governor can’t possibly be serious about cutting the budget.
Moller is currently applying for other jobs, hoping that the charter school High Tech High, where he once had an opportunity, might be willing to hire when the rest of the district fires. In times of trouble, charter schools have latitude to make budgeting changes that protect teacher jobs.
On the other hand, look at the systematic way the district must carry out these layoffs: If it cuts a top administrator from the payroll, that person doesn’t go to the unemployment line. Another rule gives her the unquestioned right to take her old job, say, as an assistant top administrator. Then the person who gets kicked out of that job has the unquestioned right to take his old job. And so on and so on. Until you get down to the guy who last year decided he’d drop everything he built in Chula Vista to go teach at the new Lincoln High. The guy, Gomez, who didn’t care about seniority. All he seemed to care about was teaching.
And you give him a pink slip.
Moller doesn’t like it.
“We’ve been teaching nine years, but we’re looked at as first-year teachers. We have the chance of getting bumped by more tenured teachers. But where were those teachers when Lincoln opened? We wanted to be here,” Moller said.
“I would retire at Lincoln,” he said.
He’s a couple of decades away from retirement, though.
School leaders hand out the pink slips loyal to the seniority rules — a result of state law. Even reformers concede state law restricts the district to this automated application of the practice.
That doesn’t mean the local teachers union doesn’t like the rules.
The teachers union is willing to howl about the pain inflicted by these cuts on single schools like Jackson Elementary, but not willing to shoulder any of the blame for the make up of the rules that cause it to happen.
Ask union officials about the disproportionate effect the layoffs would have on a place like Lincoln and they will say something like what Zombro told me.
“The school board should have known it was going to have this effect when they decided to do this,” she said.
To do what? The layoffs were coming, we were told, from the governor’s recommended cut of the education budget that would result in $80 million in cuts for San Diego Unified.
So what could San Diego Unified have done to avoid it?
“They could have decided not to lay off teachers,” Zombro said.
It’s sort of like arguing that the Chargers could have avoided losing last year’s AFC Championship Game by deciding to score more points than the Patriots.
Yes, they could have. But how?
Zombro claims the district is top-heavy, and she rattled off some stats. Across the state, the average ratio is one administrator for every 394 students. In San Diego, she said, it is one administrator for every 282 students.
It’s a good point — ironically reminiscent, actually, of conservative gripes about the education system. OK, so say they cut administrators at San Diego Unified. There’s a bit of a problem: remember what happens to them when you cut their jobs? They don’t line up for unemployment, they bounce someone else out of a lower position. And the cascade of doom slides down to the guy at Lincoln.
So give me something else.
Well, it’s simple, the unions contend, the state shouldn’t cut education.
The district won’t have to lay off teachers if the state doesn’t cut its budget.
And the Chargers will go to the Super Bowl if they score more points than the other teams they play.
There are other ironies. Jackson Elementary, the one facing a brutal turnover in the event of the layoffs becoming reality, was just Wednesday listed as one of the “California Distinguished Schools.” According to a piece put together recently by the California Department of Education, the school has narrowed the much-fretted-about achievement gap and improved its situation dramatically.
Now, again, 24 of the school’s 26 teachers could be replaced this year.
No manager of a major organization would institute layoffs like this. Even government agencies, like the city of Chula Vista, give their departments a chance to hit budget targets. Collins, the Lincoln principal, says he could meet a target for budget cuts if he were asked. Months ago, he was asked to cut 5 percent of his budget and he got rid of $500,000 of that just by rearranging the school schedule.
Without a change in state law, the teachers could never be evaluated by merit when discussing layoffs. The last time the governor tried to change a law like that, he almost ruined his political career. It will be a lot easier for him to layoff teachers.
But no matter how frustrated teachers and principals are with the rules that demand that the layoffs follow this in times of crisis, ultimately the ire turns to the state.
Gomez wonders about all the spending on the war in Iraq. Couldn’t that capital be redirected to struggling states and schools? Moller wonders why the state spends so much on prisons. The state’s notorious Proposition 13-restrictions on property taxes are also a common target.
A report from the U.S. Census bureau last week put all the numbers out on the table. California ranked right in the middle when you compare how much the state spends per student on education. No. 25 out of 50. The average state in the country spends $9,138 per year per student. California spends just below that — $8,486.
There are lots of complaints and statistics in this discussion, as you can tell.
But one thing is almost certain: the economy isn’t exactly turning a corner toward prosperity. If the cuts are minimized this year and the pain “absorbed” the issue doubtlessly will re-emerge. Arun Ramanathan, the executive director of San Diego Unified’s government relations efforts, said the state faces another looming crisis if layoffs like this are realized this year or in coming years.
It’s one thing to layoff young teachers and watch what happens to the schools with high concentrations of young teachers. But it’s another thing to layoff young teachers in at a time when a bevy of Baby Boomers are starting to retire.
“It’s a statewide issue,” Ramanathan said. “In the next two to six years a lot of people are retiring. It creates a problem when, across the state, we’re laying off a lot of younger teachers at the same time.”
Some of the teachers I met might have already moved to find more job stability after the pain of this year’s crisis is “absorbed” and the Baby Boomers bulge reaches retirement ranks.
By then, though, a place like Jackson Elementary might just have to start all over, from the beginning.
Correction: The original version of this piece had the ratio of students to administrators cited by the teachers union backwards. It has been changed.