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Teacher Layoff Warnings Sow Confusion and Uncertainty, Dampen Morale

Written by Ida MojadadPublished Feb. 04, 2022 • 6:30am

Robin Oh, an educational specialist at Hoover Middle School, has been debating whether to continue teaching for some time. After two years of generalized Covid stress, a chaotic return to in-person learning this fall, increased developmental needs, a critical staff shortage, and the Omicron surge, he’s been feeling the burnout.

And that was before more than 400 preliminary notices of potential layoffs came last week.

Though Oh did not receive one himself—and while he understands many teachers who got a notice will ultimately keep their jobs—he said the announcement left him and some of his colleagues demoralized.

“The past two years have been pretty stressful,” Oh told the Standard. “If we’re going to lose people, it’s just going to make my job as an educator harder."

In sending preliminary layoff notices to staff, San Francisco Unified School District set off the painful cuts many knew were coming, as the district attempts to balance a $125 million deficit—a shortfall severe enough to trigger state intervention. 

The notices, which do not guarantee termination, nevertheless led to confusion, some panic and a dip in morale even as incoming state funds could offset many cuts. Though SFUSD isn’t disclosing the number of staff served a preliminary notice, the United Educators of San Francisco said 411 educators got word that a pink slip might be coming. 

Yajaira Cuapio, a school social worker at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, received a preliminary notice and was told not to panic. Some educator friends shared with her that they felt “blindsided” by the notices during what Cuapio considers the most challenging year yet out of her seven years working in SFUSD schools (four of which were spent in a partnership between the district and community benefit organizations).

“We were surprised the cuts could potentially be that deep,” Cuapio said in an email. “I wish that SFUSD would have waited until they received more information from educators that are retiring or leaving the district.”

Deep Cuts

Under the watchful eye of the state, the San Francisco Board of Education in December approved deep district-wide cuts, including $50 million from school campuses, to address an immediate $125 million budget shortfall. If California education officials determine further intervention is needed, the state will take control of the district to ensure bills can be paid—an oversight process that can take a decade to recover from.

California school districts have until March 15 to send out official layoff notices, which even then can be rescinded. Many of the direct cuts to school site funding—and hence, some jobs—could be offset if the proposed state budget is approved. In that event, SFUSD officials estimated the district’s operating budget would increase by at least $40 million.

The layoffs could also be offset by the many staff vacancies that piled up during the fall semester and may be left unfilled. There are currently vacant positions for 46 classroom teachers and 148 for paraeducators, according to district spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

But just because there are nearly 200 open positions, that doesn’t guarantee that nearly 200 jobs can be saved, as credentials, qualifications, and other factors don’t always line up.

UESF president Cassondra Curiel said a lot of uncertainty and confusion could have been avoided if the district had bided its time before sending preliminary.

“It’s hugely stressful,” Curiel said of educators receiving the letter last week. “I find it entirely unacceptable that the most vulnerable, the least paid and the most in-contact with students and families got notices early without the entire SFUSD community knowing how the entire [budget] is going to be balanced. Shouldn’t this assessment be happening holistically?”

Bonuses at a Cost

UESF and SFUSD reached a tentative agreement last week, which would give $4,000 in bonuses to union teachers and paraeducators this year. Curiel said it would help tide over educators not receiving a paycheck in the summer but isn’t enough.

Oh would rather forfeit the bonus if it means keeping more teachers. Some UESF educators are organizing against the tentative agreement citing that as one reason.

“The bonuses are coming with a cost—layoffs,” Steven Flanagan, a 14-year veteran of Sunnyside Elementary School, said in an email. “It also is a bonus, not a pay raise which I think is a more effective solution for education retention.” 

School districts statewide are contending with many similar issues of higher student needs, staffing shortages, and declining enrollment leading to a considerably increased budget for K-12 funding under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal. 

SFUSD is considering using up to $35 million of that to restore funding to school-based budgets, keeping $15 million in cuts to adjust for enrollment.

Cuapio said she is “hopeful” that state funds would save the jobs needed to serve students and that the complex budget process needs to be more accessible to students and families. She remains determined to contribute to a public school support system that centers student needs.

But both the state and district budgets aren’t finalized until June, keeping uncertainty and pink slips for educators a reality.

“I’ve been kind of teetering on ‘Do I still want to be a teacher?’” Oh said. “It’s not the kids, it’s not the responsibility—it’s the constant back and forth of [SFUSD is] going to take things from us while things are already hard.”

This story has been updated from a previous version.

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