While most teachers started planning lessons or setting up their classrooms today, scores of them filed into the San Diego Unified offices on Normal Street this morning. They didn’t know where they’d be working and waited to find out their fates.

They chattered nervously, holding little cards that label the subjects they teach.

“Good morning, and I hope we can make it a better morning,” said Lamont Jackson, who oversees the human resources department.

Let’s stop for a second. Why is this happening? Well, when money’s tight or enrollment shrinks, schools shed teachers. The newest teachers across the school district can end up losing their jobs completely. Others are forced to leave their schools, but they have spent enough years in the school district to still have the right to a job somewhere. They are dubbed “excessed” teachers.

The question is where they’ll go. Schools have already advertised jobs and interviewed candidates. Now is the tricky part: Assigning teachers who didn’t get one of those jobs to schools that still need teachers.

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And that is why all of these teachers are waiting in the San Diego Unified auditorium today. I’d estimate there were more than 100 teachers there, and some were still trickling in when I left. San Diego Unified is trying to slot all of them into jobs before it decides if it can rehire more laid off teachers.

The clock is ticking to get everyone sorted out: School starts next Tuesday.

School district staffers called out names one at a time and ushered anxious teachers towards another office. The teachers who spent the longest with San Diego Unified went first. Jackson explained that one by one, they would get to see which jobs were still available and choose which one they wanted.

“We will then communicate with principals to welcome you,” Jackson said. “You will report to those school sites today.”

Kevin Coleman teaches biology and physical education and he has been “excessed” for nine years in a row. After a frustrating summer of bidding on jobs and not even getting a chance to interview for them, Coleman said he got a phone call from the district last night telling him he had a job at a high school.

When he phoned the principal, she refused, saying she didn’t want to have someone imposed on her. Coleman understands that. But he also wants to get his job. When Coleman explained that a principal had turned him away, Jackson immediately offered to meet with him to sort it out.

“That’s unacceptable,” Jackson said to the whole auditorium when Coleman asked the question in front of the whole group. “We’re not going to go there.”

The system can force schools to take on teachers who the principal did not choose or even get to interview, as we explained in a series a few years ago.

Principals say the rules keep them from choosing teachers who fit their schools. Teachers, in turn, complain that principals game the system, dodging the rules to play favorites.

“The union doesn’t have the ability to police it. I don’t think the district does either,” said Marc Capitelli, the former vice president of the teachers union, as he sat in the auditorium and waited. Capitelli has been working at Webster Elementary for the past nine years. Now he has no idea where he’ll be going.

Teachers gabbed and snacked on muffins while they waited. One of the first teachers whose name was called came back and threw her arms around a friend. Monica Marte had been excessed from Knox, a school in Lincoln Park where she spent more than 13 years, most of them teaching math.

Marte was terrified that she would be plunked into an elementary school and have to teach reading, something she hasn’t done in more than a decade. She had been offered other jobs and turned them down, hoping she could come back to Knox. Today she found out she got to stay there.

“I’ve been praying a lot,” Marte said before she left to start working at Knox.

I also ran into Jeff Merzbacher, a teacher who I interviewed years ago about turnover at disadvantaged schools. Merzbacher taught English and German at Henry High last year and decided to put himself in excess, hoping to get back into special education.

“But I’ll do anything they ask me to,” Merzbacher joked. Then someone called his name and Merzbacher was off to find out what “anything” might be.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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