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.

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.