Friday, May 30, 2008 | In March, fellow teachers shrugged at the layoff warnings that alarmed Mark Mathewson, a former information technology worker who quit a higher-paying job four years ago to teach elementary school in San Diego.

They’d seen it all before in 2003: Dire warnings of severe, statewide cuts to schools. The ensuing stream of layoff warnings to employees. Furious outcry from parents and unions. And the eventual cancellation of the dreaded layoffs — or most of them — as California lawmakers retreated from their budgeting plans and reduced cuts to schools.

The Cost of Erased Layoffs

  • The Issue: School districts across San Diego County are cancelling layoffs, but the layoff process has already cost them time, money and morale.
  • What It Means: While the threat of layoffs has subsided for many, the ordeal has had an impact on schools and teachers.
  • The Bigger Picture: Schools must issue layoff warnings long before state budgets are finalized. It’s a timeline that is widely disliked and resulted a similar layoff warning in 2003. Yet there is little discussion of changing it.

But to Mathewson, it was new and troubling. He rallied outside the San Diego Unified school board and penned an editorial in the Union-Tribune. Two months later, his layoff notice still stood. Mathewson decided to abandon teaching. A former boss, alerted by Mathewson’s editorial that his job was in jeopardy, has interviewed him for a technology job.

Less than two weeks later, San Diego Unified had cancelled layoff notices for more than 600 employees after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a new budget proposal that restored some funding to California schools. Mathewson’s job was spared. But the school district has already lost him.

Driving away employees such as Mathewson is just one cost of a layoff process that drains schools of time, money and morale. Even as school districts across the county backtrack on many planned layoffs, they have already paid thousands of dollars to hold hearings where employees contest their dismissals, and poured uncounted hours into sending layoff warnings and compiling seniority lists.

They pay substitute teachers to replace employees attending hearings that can stretch a day or longer. They pay attorneys to argue over whether employees were properly notified of layoffs and whether seniority dates are correct — details that can void layoff warnings if an administrative judge decides the district erred.

The county’s largest district, San Diego Unified, spent approximately $77,300 on substitute teachers to cover two days of hearings. Layoff-related legal costs were not immediately available from the district. San Diego Unified was represented at the hearings by a San Marcos firm, Fagen Friedman and Fulfrost LLP, whose senior attorneys, associates and partners charge about $200 an hour under their agreement with San Diego Unified.

“All our school districts have spent an enormous amount of manpower — just staff time — creating layoff notices, doing the analysis of hire dates, creating criteria, looking at all the different components of a teacher’s professional training to see who gets placed where on the layoff list — you can’t put a dollar sign on it, but they cost the profession greatly,” said Chris Reising, director of the Southern California Teacher Recruitment and Support Center, an initiative of the county Office of Education.

School districts are forced to budget and prepare for layoffs using the earliest and often loosest predictions emanating from Sacramento. Long before state budgets are finalized. Consequently, school districts have historically braced for the worst by warning teachers of potential layoffs, only to reverse those warnings later as predicted shortfalls soften.

Critics accuse schools of overreacting. School boards say their hands are tied.

“It’s a crazy way of doing business,” said Anthony Millican, spokesman for the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which cancelled 274 planned layoffs for classroom teachers, but is still planning to slash more than 140 other positions. Its budget gap narrowed somewhat, from $11 million to $7.5 million, based on Schwarzenegger’s revision.

“The clearest budget information didn’t emerge until two months after the deadline” to warn teachers of layoffs, Millican said. “Where is the logic in that process?”

Chula Vista Elementary School District spent about $40,000 on substitute teachers during a two-day hearing, said Millican. Like San Diego Unified, its legal costs have not yet been totaled. The school district hired the firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, whose partners and senior associates charge $210 an hour.

San Ysidro School District has not yet been billed for its layoff hearings, but estimates that its bills will total between $34,600 and $36,600 for substitute teachers and legal advice related to the layoff procedures. That figure equates to roughly 1 percent of the $3.4 million in budget reductions San Ysidro School District approved earlier this year. The district has since revised its estimates and now expects a $2 million cut, Assistant Superintendent Karl Christensen said.

Poway Unified School District estimated its layoff costs at $25,000, including attorney fees and substitute teachers. A much smaller district, Carlsbad Unified, spent at least $9,000 on substitute teachers during hearings, said Assistant Superintendent Walter Freeman, who said the school district’s legal costs were not yet available.

“It doesn’t even begin to include the cost of the attorneys, which every school district in their right mind brings into this situation — it’s so highly technical and expensive,” Freeman said.

Far tougher to calculate are the number of hours spent by school district staffers planning for layoffs, said Sharon Raffer, spokesperson for Poway Unified. Alarm about layoffs has hijacked the time school districts would ordinarily spend on other concerns. Poway Superintendent Don Phillips said his district had delayed new initiatives, preoccupied by budget planning. Poway cancelled more than 100 teacher layoffs but still plans to cut other employees.

Nor can districts quantify the emotional toll of the layoff process. School nurse Juliet R. dela Paz sobbed openly before the San Diego Unified school board when her layoff was canceled. Dela Paz started working as a school nurse in December 2006 and is midway through a school nurse credentialing program.

“I was writing papers for my classes saying, ‘Why am I doing this?’” dela Paz recalled. At work, “all the work that I’d be doing I’d just be passing off to a different nurse — if there would be a new nurse at all. I wondered, ‘Why did I go that extra mile if I’m just a number?’”

Dela Paz is staying. But others, such as Mathewson, have soured on teaching after the layoff scare. Though it seems paradoxical to leave after San Diego Unified spared his job, Mathewson said the experience was the final straw in an aggravating three years burdened by bureaucracy and unreasonable expectations. His reaction isn’t unique, Reising said.

“We all see these cyclical occurrences. Doom-and-gloom layoff notices are issued. The economic landscape shifts slightly. The layoff notices are rescinded. But the damage has been done,” Reising said.

“It’s our job to get the best and the brightest into classrooms,” he added. “If they truly are the best and the brightest, they have other options.”

Those cycles breed skepticism about school budget cuts across the political spectrum. Teachers union president Camille Zombro disbelieved the deficits predicted by San Diego Unified, calling them “fake numbers” that induced an overreaction by the district, which originally planned to dismiss nearly 1,000 educators. San Diego Tax Fighters chair Richard Rider shares Zombro’s skepticism but draws a radically different conclusion.

“It’s an orchestrated campaign with the idea of panicking the Legislature — with the public’s backing — into pouring more money into education,” Rider said. “It’s crying wolf.”

Some policy wonks share that suspicion, said Steve Frates, senior fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

The theory is “you cut what’s popular so you engender outrage from the citizenry, and the citizenry nudges the elected officials to restore the cuts,” said Frates, who said he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that belief personally.

Despite the widespread aggravation with the system, there is little discussion of aligning the timelines for state budgeting with school district deadlines, or delaying layoff warnings until school districts have firmer budget predictions, said Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association. In light of the volatility of school funding, teachers are protective of their notification deadlines, which entered the state Education Code in 1976.

“And I don’t see any way of changing the state’s process,” Pratt said. “School districts are a pilot flying without instruments.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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