Janesville teachers disquieted over layoff predictions

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Sunday, December 26, 2010
— Chad Roehl has a mortgage, a 10-month-old child, and he and his wife are expecting their second child.

Add to those responsibilities the fear that he could be laid off next June.

Roehl is in his fifth year teaching business courses at Janesville Parker High School. He is low on the seniority list, and he’s nervous because some Janesville School Board members are suggesting layoffs of dozens of teachers.

“This is a very stressful time for me, one that I have lost hours of sleep on,” Roehl said.

Some teachers the Gazette contacted were reluctant to rock the boat at a time when their futures are on the line. One who asked that her name not be used said many younger teachers are worried.

“What’s unnerving is the uncertainty of it, not knowing if it going to happen or not,” said the teacher, who is worried how she would sell her home if she had to move to take a new job.

“I like being in the district. I like what I’ve done so far, and I’d like to continue doing it,” she said. “But with that hanging over my head, it’s hard to make decisions about my future and the future of the kids.”

The teacher said she doesn’t want to introduce new things in the classroom that she would not be able to see through.

“It’s hard, because you hear rumors, and you don’t know what to believe, and it’s hard to focus on the most important task, which is educating the kids,” she said. “I’m not the only young teacher who feels this way.”

It’s far too early to say how many teachers might be laid off. The district is facing a potential budget shortfall of nearly $10 million.

District leaders already have eliminated a high school assistant principal position starting next fall, and the board has agreed to increase the minimum high school class size from 18 to 24.

The class-size change will mean fewer teachers might be needed for elective courses such as business, the arts and foreign languages. Much will depend on enrollments and on which classes students sign up for next month.

The school board got an earful from supporters of the German program at the last board meeting. German and French have the lowest enrollments among foreign-language courses taught at the high schools. Often, the fourth-and fifth-year level courses have been combined in order to get enough students in the class.

“I know this is a difficult time, but I ask you to put all students first and not eliminate classes or courses just because they fall short of 24 bodies,” German teacher Linda Miller pleaded with the board. “This would be a travesty to our current and future students.”

Teachers union President Dave Parr said he expects at least “a few” layoffs. He points out that the number of yet-to-be announced teacher retirements could soften the blow. And, Parr said the district’s financial picture is too murky to predict what might happen.

For instance, the $10 million shortfall assumes no increase in state aid, but the district usually gets an increase, Parr said. It also assumes no tax increase.

“It looks like layoffs. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. But we don’t know how many,” Parr said. “… The school board members would know more than I do.”

School board member DuWayne Severson said the board is likely to cut 50 to 70 of the 800-plus teaching positions. Board President Bill Sodemann said those numbers are quite possible.

Board member Kevin Murray calls that kind of talk “alarmist.”

“We don’t know the truth yet,” Murray said. “We can guess, but we don’t know for sure.”

But even Murray expects some layoffs.

The teachers’ contract requires teachers be notified of an intent to lay them off by May 1.

“There’s a long time between now and May 1,” Parr said. “… So I don’t want to get anybody too panicked, yet.”

Fearful teachers are contacting their union leaders every day, Parr said.

“I give them as honest as advice as I can. We know some classes are more susceptible than others, so the advice we give depends on what that teacher teaches,” Parr said.

Parr said he believes most of the job cuts will come at the middle and high schools, but the administration has yet to announce what its plans are beyond the high school class-size move.

Parr said he has told younger teachers—who are more susceptible to cuts because of contract-based seniority rules—that it would be in their best interests to look for jobs elsewhere.

Teachers who are early in their careers are more likely to lose their jobs because their work contract allows teachers with more seniority to “bump” them. Teacher certifications also play into layoffs. A teacher who has a certification that is needed could be retained while a more senior teacher who doesn’t have a needed specialty could be laid off.

The contract keeps the administration from using layoffs to retain the best teachers, a reality that bothers Sodemann.

Sodemann said a teacher’s experience can be a great thing, but “what I don’t like is the way the rules are written, that who stays and who goes has nothing to do with how effective they are in the classroom.”

About $3 million of the shortfall is attributed to increases in employee pay and benefits. Some are suggesting the district would not be in such a fix if the board had not agreed to those increases.

Parr said the district also would not have been in such a fix if the board had taxed to the maximum allowed by law in recent years, which it did not.

“The state gave us plenty of money to fund education; we’ve chosen not to use it,” Parr said.

What about a deal: teacher job security in exchange for less of a raise next year? Parr said that was tried once before. The deal saved 12 jobs, but the next year, those jobs were cut.

Sodemann said no one has suggested such a deal, but “I would be more than willing to talk that way if they wanted to talk about reopening the contract for the benefit of our kids.”

Murray argued that it’s not fair to fault teachers when health-care costs rise by 15 percent in one year.

Also out of the district’s control is an increase in the state retirement system’s rates.

Rather than fighting about past decisions, teachers and district officials should work together to solve the current problem, Parr said.

“We live with our decisions, and we move forward,” Parr said.

Ultimately, the blame goes to the dysfunctional state school-funding system, Parr said.

Roehl, meanwhile, is hoping district leaders find alternatives to layoffs as they review the entire budget picture.

“I feel like there are other avenues,” Roehl said. “Do I know what they are? No. I’m not privy to all the financial information.

“I just feel like cuts should be as much as possible away from people who have direct contact with the students.”

Cuts on the brain

The Janesville School District administration has been considering the 2011-12 budget for at least several months.

Included here are from the administration’s “brainstorming list,” contained in an Oct. 8 memo that the Janesville Gazette obtained through an open-records request.

The list was developed specifically to restore $1.6 million that the school board took out of its reserves in order to hold down taxes in the current year’s budget.

Superintendent Karen Schulte has said everything is on the table, so this is probably not an inclusive list:

-- Divide that amount proportionally among the schools and the central office “by reducing staff, cutting programs or reducing more supplies.” Supply budgets were cut in the current budget.

-- "Position reductions."

-- "Reduce field trips."

-- Seek sponsors for high school sports to reduce costs in the athletics budget.

-- Increase athletics fees “and activity-participation fees.”

-- Eliminate storage facilities. The district recently eliminated one storage building but still pays about $67,000 a year for a 14,513-square-foot facility.

-- Move some students who now get one-on-one instruction at home to the district’s virtual high school. These are students who must stay at home for medical reasons or because they have been expelled and special-education law requires they continue to get an education.

-- Reduce benefits costs for non-unionized employees.

-- Rent space in schools to businesses or nonprofits.

-- Share expenses with the city, including snowplowing, street maintenance, equipment or joint salt or fuel purchases.

-- "Introduce Mercy or Dean for lower premiums." The district is self-insured.

-- Offer adult education during off hours.

-- Energy reduction.

Last updated: 3:44 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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