Six years ago, as principal of Central Elementary in City Heights, Cindy Marten argued that because poor schools tend to employ the newest teachers, they’re hurt disproportionately by layoffs.

Now, as superintendent of San Diego Unified, Marten is the one laying off teachers. But one thing hasn’t changed: Low-income schools still bear the brunt of the cuts.

Last week, San Diego Unified began sending out layoff notices to about 1,500 employees.

That has many teachers worried and angry. The San Diego Education Association, the local teachers union, is encouraging its members to post these notices on their doors at schools.

pink slips

Neither San Diego Unified nor the teachers union agreed to provide a list of schools facing the most layoffs. But information obtained by Voice of San Diego indicates this year should be no exception to the general rule that layoffs hurt the poorest schools worst.

For 16 of the 20 schools in San Diego Unified facing the most layoff notices, at least 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch – a rough measure of a school’s poverty level.

The list reflects the number of teachers facing layoffs. At some schools, the total number of staff members facing layoffs could be higher than indicated by the list because school nurses, psychologists and counselors are also on the chopping block.

At this point, the layoff notices aren’t the last word. The district makes final layoff decisions in May. If enough senior educators accept a financial incentive to retire early, it could free up money and soften the cuts. In other words, this list is only a snapshot in time and will likely change before the end of the year.

That said, the 20 district schools where the most teachers are facing layoffs are overwhelmingly poor.

Nine schools on the list are located in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods represented by board trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne. At Fulton K-8 in Encanto, more than half the school’s teachers are facing layoffs. Roughly 90 percent of Fulton students qualify for subsidized lunch.

Topping the list, however, is Whittier K-12, a school in Clairemont for students with severe disabilities. Whittier could see a turnover of 80 percent of its teachers, which could be related to changes planned for the district’s special education department next year, when special education services will be consolidated at certain schools.  Many special education teachers in the district are facing layoffs.

That low-income schools bear the brunt of layoffs goes back to longstanding but controversial state law that requires school districts to first lay off its newest teachers before cutting those with more seniority.

Because teachers are placed in schools based on seniority, the more senior teachers generally seek more affluent schools with better test scores, and the system has a detrimental impact on the poorest schools.

School board president Richard Barrera has said he agrees the seniority-system disproportionately impacts poor schools, but said the solution is not to overturn the last in, first out policy – it’s to avoid layoffs in the first place.

And while the current system is imperfect, determining layoffs by seniority is fairer than a system that would prioritize layoffs based on performance, Barrera has argued.

“If seniority-based layoff systems seem unfair, then what’s the alternative? The alternatives are monumentally unfair for kids because it would create an environment where teachers are competing with each other,” Barrera said.

Basing layoffs on performance, he said, “would absolutely break down what’s proven to be the most effective for schools – a collaborative approach.”

In 2012, when 1,372 teachers were laid off, Barrera was able to broker a deal with the teachers union wherein teachers agreed to put off a series of promised pay raises and extend five unpaid furlough days for an additional two years. That deal allowed the district to avoid layoffs altogether. By Sept. 1, every teacher who had been laid off was back in school.

And if teachers were driven by competition, which a performance-based system would encourage, teachers would be less willing to sacrifice and save their colleagues’ jobs, he said.

“People say layoffs are inevitable. Layoffs are not inevitable if you have the kind of relationships with the union that will allow you to mitigate the layoffs,” Barrera said.

Trustee John Lee Evans said that while the number of teachers currently facing layoffs appears to impact low-income schools more drastically than affluent schools, the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt until final layoff decisions are made in May.

“You could say potentially half of these layoffs could be canceled. The final layoff numbers will be lower,” said Evans.

But teachers facing layoffs may not take much solace in Evans’ note of caution. Earlier this month, in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, Marten said that even if Gov. Jerry Brown sends the district an additional $20 million before the end of the year, that money won’t be used to rehire positions.

“That’s not $20 million to bring people back,” she said. “One of our strategies for 18-19 is not taking any money in to backfill (positions) that are cut,” Marten told the editorial board.

The district is already projecting a $50 million budget deficit for the 2018-2019 school year.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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