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.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.