explainer

What to expect when you're expecting layoffs: a rough guide

We’re told there are layoffs coming. But how many people will be laid off? Who will they be? And will you or your child’s teacher be among them?

“I wish I had more money and I wish I had more clarity,” was Chancellor Joel Klein’s answer to these questions a few weeks ago, speaking to principals by conference call.

The process of laying off teachers in New York City is so complex that few people have clear answers right now. But after studying the state law that sets teacher hiring and firing rules, talking to union and city officials, and looking back to the 1970s — the last time a economic crisis forced thousands of teacher layoffs — I have some clues. Here are answers to questions I’ve heard from parents and teachers (send more!).

Will there be layoffs?
Several scenarios exist that could reduce — but probably not eliminate — the number of layoffs.

In its leaderless, unpredictable state, Albany could rewrite the budget forecast as I type these words. Governor Paterson’s budget, and the budget passed in the Senate, cut about $500 million from New York City schools. When you add in the city’s increased operating costs, the losses come to $750 million. Klein has translated that to mean roughly 6,400 lost teaching jobs next year. Of that, 2,000 would be lost when teachers retire or move and the city plans to cut the other 4,400 through layoffs.

If the State Assembly decreases the education cut, the layoff numbers could go down. Another possibility is that the city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, could cut a deal that would freeze teacher salaries in exchange for fewer layoffs. And yet another unpredictable element is S. 3206, the Keep Our Educators Working Act. Sponsored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and backed by the Obama White House, the bill would devote $23 billion to helping states avoid teacher layoffs. If Congress approves the bill, New York City would get a $400 million lifeline.

How will the city decide which teachers lose their jobs?

Rules for layoffs were first written into New York’s education law in 1976. They say:

Whenever a teaching position is abolished under this chapter, the services of the person holding a position within the tenure area of the position which is to be abolished who has the least seniority in the city school district, including all full-time equivalent substitute service and all full-time equivalent service as a paraprofessional, shall be discontinued, provided that the services of a person who has acquired tenure within such tenure area shall not be discontinued if another person holding a position within such tenure area has not acquired tenure.

You mean you didn’t understand that?
The law means that the city has to lay off teachers based on how recently they were hired, with some leeway. Rather than taking all the most recent hires and firing them without considering what subject they teach, the law allows officials to make layoffs according to subject area.

Hypothetically, hundreds of elementary school classroom teachers could lose their jobs, but only a dozen science teachers could be laid off and almost no special education teachers would have to go. Right now, city education officials are puzzling over exactly how deeply to cut from each kind of position.

One way to decide which subjects to cut the most would be to let principals decide which positions they can live without. But the city has calculated that these decisions could take far too long to make, and so officials are instead making projections themselves.

According to a source, officials will calculate how many teachers will have to be cut from each subject area by studying schools’ past behavior and looking at hiring trends.

Does where I teach matter?
These cuts will happen on a citywide basis. This means that if the city estimates it has to cut 500 middle school social studies positions, the middle school social studies teachers who will lose their jobs are the 500 newest hires across all five boroughs. It doesn’t matter if your principal likes you and can afford to keep you on staff; you’re the rookie and you’ve got to go.

New schools that hired their entire staff in the last two years are likely to be hit the hardest by layoffs. And of all the boroughs, the Bronx would suffer the most as it employs many of the city’s most recent hires.

City officials have predicted that elementary school classroom teachers are likely to bear the brunt of the cuts. They’ve also said that teachers working in hard-to-staff subjects — like high school special education or chemistry — will probably see fewer layoffs.

But Klein keeps saying he wants to lay off teachers based on their ability. Could that happen?
Even the most diehard, anti-seniority-based layoffs city officials currently view this as a pipe dream. The law is the law, and there aren’t any signs this will change in the next few weeks.

Who’s going to be teaching my child next year?
In the worst case budget scenario, if your child’s teacher was hired in the last two years and teaches a subject that’s not in high demand, chances are good that she will lose her job. Another teacher may take her place if the school can afford to fill the vacancy, in which case the newly arrived teacher will be more senior and come from another school that either couldn’t afford him or that he left of his own volition.

If your school’s principal can’t stretch the budget to fill the vacancy, class sizes will probably rise. If it’s a high school, the principal may have to drop certain classes from the school’s offerings.

When will I know if I’m being laid off?
Department of Education officials hope to give principals their budgets for next year by June 1, so you could find out shortly afterward that your position has been eliminated at your school. But that doesn’t mean you’ve been laid off.

The teachers union contract says you have to be told about layoffs on or near June 15, but you shouldn’t view that as a hard deadline. If any of the moving parts change — if Albany alters the budget cut or if the federal government passes the education bailout bill — the news may come quite a bit later.

If I’m a teacher and I am laid off, do I get severance pay?
No. You will be paid through the summer and for the vacation days and sick days you didn’t use.

How long will my health insurance last?
Your city health insurance will expire 90 days from the day you are laid off. At that point, you can extend your health benefits with COBRA, which allows you to keep your insurance temporarily but requires you to pay the entire premium. It’s cheaper than getting individual health insurance.

In the words of one school official: “Go see your doctor; go to the dentist; go to the gynecologist, do it all.”

What happens if I’m laid off and then economic conditions improve?
The city has to keep what’s known as a “recall list” of all the teachers who’ve been laid off by order of seniority within their subject area. If jobs become available, the city can recall you. This process can be just as chaotic as layoffs are because, like layoffs, recalling is done on a citywide scale. This means that if you were laid off from a job in the Bronx you could be recalled and offered first rights to a job in Staten Island, even if your old school has an opening in your license area and wants to hire you back. First rights to that job could go to another teacher who’s ahead of you in the recall line.

In the mid-1970s, the last time layoffs of this scale were carried out, the city laid off 15,000 teachers and then tried to recall 10,000 of them. Only 3,000 ever returned to the system.

Send more questions to tips@gothamschools.org.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”