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Given money for rehiring, schools wait and see

The money for schools to rehire teachers, counselors and support workers is instead being set aside by school districts worried about cuts to come in the current school year.
Image: Joelle Beck
Joelle Beck, laid off from her teaching job in O’Fallon, Ill., was hired at half the salary to run an in-school suspension program. Virginia Lee Hunter for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

As schools handed out pink slips to teachers this spring, states made a beeline to Washington to plead for money for their ravaged education budgets. But now that the federal government has come through with $10 billion, some of the nation’s biggest school districts are balking at using their share of the money to hire teachers right away.

With the economic outlook weakening, they argue that big deficits are looming for the next academic year and that they need to preserve the funds to prevent future layoffs. Los Angeles, for example, is projecting a $280 million budget shortfall next year that could threaten more jobs.

“You’ve got this herculean task to deal with next year’s deficit,” said Lydia L. Ramos, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest after New York City.

“So if there’s a way that you can lessen the blow for next year,” she said, “we feel like it would be responsible to try to do that.”

The district laid off 682 teachers and counselors and about 2,000 support workers this spring and was not sure it would be able to hire any of them back with the stimulus money. The district says it could be forced to cut 4,500 more people next year.

'A real double-edged sword'
In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg committed to no teacher layoffs this year in exchange for not offering raises. A spokeswoman said the city’s budget had already taken the federal aid into account.

In New Jersey, where about 3,000 teachers were let go in May, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration worries that the federal aid will only forestall difficult decisions later, and it is unclear how much will be spent immediately.

“It’s a real double-edged sword,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor. “This money will not be there next year, and we’re not going to get back up to the funding that they had previously been used to.”

A $26 billion federal aid package, signed by President Obama on Aug. 10, allocates $10 billion for school districts to retain or rehire teachers, counselors, classroom aides, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others — with the remainder of the money directed toward health care for the poor, emergency personnel and other state purposes.

The education measure requires states to distribute the money for the current school year, but allows school districts to spend it as late as September 2012. It also allows schools to roll back furlough days. The education department estimates it could salvage about 160,000 jobs.

“We can’t stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe,” President Obama said last week. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Though preserving jobs will be good for the economy, it will disappoint out-of-work teachers and parents who have been expecting a surge in rehiring. Many districts, like Kansas City, Kan., face the likelihood of midyear cuts, and administrators will count themselves lucky to save jobs. In the nation’s fifth-largest district in Clark County in Las Vegas, administrators are eager to hire some teachers, though they wonder what they will do when the federal money runs out.

“We’re a little wary about hiring people if we only have money for a year, but we know that’s the intent of this bill,” said Jeff Weiler, chief financial officer for Clark County schools.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry so far has rejected the new federal education dollars. Should he relent, Houston’s superintendent, Terry B. Grier, proposes to use $40 million to $70 million of it to extend the school day and year, and to hire tutors. He does not plan to rehire 414 people — including quite a few certified teachers — laid off from the central office staff.

“We can’t treat this money as if it’s a supplement to a jobs bill,” Mr. Grier said. “I want to put people to work to help children.”

Still other obstacles loom for districts, not the least of which is timing. School has resumed in many districts in struggling states, including Arizona, California and Illinois. Assigning new teachers and juggling classrooms could disrupt students. In California, the budget picture is further clouded by the state’s failure to pass its own budget for the coming year.

Even administrators in districts that start school after Labor Day have only weeks to rearrange class rosters. And with classes largely set in many places, they might more quickly deploy the money by hiring support personnel, like those tutors in Houston.

In Arizona, where most schools opened this month, nonteaching employees are more likely to be recalled. “It would be hard to add teachers this year,” said Paul Senseman, a spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer. “But the funds could be used on any school-level position like counselors, after-school programs, aides, nurses or coaches.”

Teachers’ unions are strongly urging districts to use the money right away to keep class sizes manageable and to reduce the jobless rolls. “The intent is to help districts avert layoffs now,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Kids don’t have a pause button.”

Joelle Beck, a 25-year-old high school English teacher in O’Fallon, Ill., received notice in March that she would be laid off at the end of the school year. She recently was hired to oversee an in-school suspension program for just over half the pay she received as a classroom teacher.

“When the economy first started going downhill,” Ms. Beck said, “I naïvely told my husband, ‘Well, they’re always going to need teachers.’ ”

School payrolls could continue to shrink
With the national unemployment rate stuck at 9.5 percent and private sector companies hiring cautiously, local governments are an important source of jobs and consumer spending power.

State and local governments have let go 102,000 more employees than they have added in the last three months, and economists are concerned that with revenue so depressed, school payrolls could shrink more in coming months.

Though grateful for the aid, districts like Los Angeles are worried about how to create some budget stability year to year. In Pomona, Calif., the district has yet to decide whether to hire back about 68 teachers laid off in the spring.

“We’re also looking at a pretty bad budget, so we may decide to hold all or some of the money for the next year,” said Steve Horowitz, assistant superintendent of personnel services at the Pomona Unified School District. He added that the money might be used for bus drivers or custodians, or to roll back five furlough days for teachers.

Administrators in South Florida hope that an economic upturn, particularly in travel and tourism, will help close their future budget gap and are planning to bring back teachers. At the Broward County Public Schools, an operating deficit of at least $145 million is expected next school year.

“Frankly, from my perspective, it’s better to hire them now,” said James F. Notter, superintendent for Broward. Of the 1,300 pink slips to school workers in the spring, about 555 went to teachers. The district has recalled nearly 400 of them and now hopes to use the federal aid to rehire the remaining 155.

Teachers who spent the summer in limbo are painfully aware that at best, the new federal aid may be a temporary lifeline. Latravis Bernard, who was laid off last spring as a physical education teacher at an elementary school in Miramar, Fla., for the second year in a row, is holding out hope he will be recalled.

In the meantime, Mr. Bernard, a 33-year-old father of four, has accepted a post as a special education intern, for half his previous pay, at a different school in the Broward district.

“Even if I get brought back this year,” he said, “what’s going to happen next year? It’s really discouraging.”

Michael Powell contributed reporting.

This article, "Given Money for Rehiring, Schools Wait and See," first appeared in The New York Times.