Pink-Slip Pain

Laid-off teachers struggle with low morale and wonder what's next

On the same day that Liz Samuels unpacked her last box, one month after moving into her new home, she and about 600 other Tucson Unified School District employees received pink slips.

The Reynolds Elementary School first-grade teacher was stunned; she knew the economy was a mess, she says, but she didn't expect to start this new chapter of her life by losing her job.

Samuels, 52, bought her new home with her 26-year-old daughter, Erin; they moved in together to help raise Katie, Erin's daughter and Samuels' 6-year-old granddaughter. Both mother and daughter are first-year teachers—Erin works at Robison Elementary—and both received the layoff notices.

Now, the two are wondering whether they will get their jobs back in August. Samuels says it is tough at her eastside school, where the kids are asking teachers whether they are coming back, and parents are worrying about what the school will look like next year.

"We've built a very trusting relationship with our parents. A lot are worried, because they don't know who is going to be in these positions. Who is going to be teaching their children?" Samuels asks.

Beyond the teacher layoffs, Reynolds, like all TUSD schools, was also asked to prepare for a 10 to 18 percent budget cut, in an effort to deal with an expected $50 million in education cuts handed down by the state Legislature. As a result, Samuels says, the school will no longer have a counselor, a librarian or a librarian aide.

One result of all these cuts is the potential dismantling of the education teams that principals have put in place.

"I feel we have an exceptionally strong principal who is very collaborative. We want to be there for her and do our best for her," Ann Pastirik says. "... I've just come out of a staff meeting. It is very sad. This is a raw pain. People are coming up to each other, hugging each other and crying. We're a close team."

All teachers yet to work a full three years in TUSD received pink slips, because the school district is not obligated to offer teachers contracts until after they've worked in the district for three years.

Pastirik, who teaches second grade at Reynolds, is just a few months shy of completing her third year; therefore, she got the layoff notice. Unlike Samuels and other pink-slipped teachers at Reynolds, however, she is in a different position: Her husband retired this year, and she has decided to join him in retirement and avoid the drama of Arizona education.

"Right now, it feels like we're being put through a shredder, and then eventually, we're expected to put the pieces back together again by ourselves," she says.

Pastirik is referring to the recall process. Once the district knows how the state's final budget will affect schools, it can let employees who received the layoff notices know whether they'll have a job; that could happen as soon as June, and as late as August.

Teachers have been told that the first teachers to be rehired will be district transfers—teachers previously laid off due to enrollment decreases. The next teachers to receive callbacks will be those who are closer to having three years in the system. What troubles Samuels and Pastirik most is that there's no guarantee that rehired teachers will be placed in their previous jobs.

According to Steve Courter, the president of the Tucson Education Association (the teacher's union), the district is required by state law to rehire district transfers first; however, there are exceptions.

Courter says schools with a special curriculum—like Montessori or bilingual programs—will only accept certified teachers. As for the concern shared by Samuels and Pastirik about returning to their current schools, the district and the union signed an agreement allowing teachers to declare a preference for what school, geographic area and kind of classroom they want to return to in the fall.

"It is sad. This is unprecedented, but when I talk to a lot of teachers out there, I am still impressed," Courter says. "Think about it: They want to go back to where they are teaching, and while no one can honestly guarantee they will be able to, the fact is, a lot of our teachers like their jobs and where they are teaching."

Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, the TUSD superintendent, has yet to finish her first year on the job. When she started, Celania-Fagen created a school-choice plan that allows parents to place children in any TUSD school. Part of the plan requires schools to each build a specific curriculum, in an effort to help boost TUSD enrollment.

"As far as the budget goes, things have not changed, based on the state budget projections as we still know them today," Celania-Fagen says. "What has changed is we have continued the process to make further reductions in administration, to be able to keep as many teachers as possible."

As for letting teachers know whether they will have a job, she says the district is stuck until the state budget is completed. But her school-transformation plans remain in place.

"Even though (the budget-cutting process) is causing a lot of heartache, we are still focusing on the future of the district," she says.

She's had to battle accusations from state Superintendent Tom Horne that TUSD erred by sending out all of the panic-causing layoff notices; Horne's also hinted that federal stimulus funds will save the day. However, that assertion made Celania-Fagen realize that Horne may not understand how the funds really work.

"He doesn't take into account that the stimulus money is narrow in definition. While those funds can go to programs like Title 1 and special education ... there are also strict rules around those funds. We still need baseline funding across the board for all schools. Maybe those funds can be used on top of that funding, but not instead of that funding."