That was a close one.
With the new school year approaching and 3,000 Washington state teachers facing layoffs, Congress came through with money to save their jobs.
As U.S. Sen. Patty Murray put it on the floor of the Senate last week: “That means 3,000 teachers in Washington state who are right now in limbo, who are spending this summer not knowing if they’ll return to a classroom or a pink slip in the fall.”
Problem is, there aren’t 3,000 teachers in Washington state facing layoffs. Not even close.
A survey of districts conducted by the state Professional Educators Standards Board found that just 445 teachers statewide received reduction-in-force letters last spring.
Since then, many, if not most, have been recalled for the approaching school year. In Sumner, for example, 16 RIF letters were sent out. All but one have been rescinded.
This is a normal pattern. State law and union contracts obligate school districts to let teachers know by mid-May if they might be laid off or have their hours reduced. Many districts err on the high side but end up reducing the layoffs or not having to lay off staff at all.
A University of Washington study found that 91 percent of the 2,000-plus teachers who received RIF letters in 2009 were on the job once school began in September.
So where did Murray come up with 3,000 threatened jobs? Congressional math, it appears. Since Washingtonians are a bit more than 2 percent of the nation’s population, we’ll get a bit more than 2 percent of the $10 billion appropriated for teacher jobs.
Divide the average pay and benefits for a teacher into the $206 million and you get 3,300 jobs. From that, Murray extrapolates to claim thousands of threatened layoffs.
To its credit, the Department of Education says the money will “support” rather than “save” jobs. But Secretary Arne Duncan used breathless terms in a news conference Tuesday, calling the jobs fund a “lifeline” for teachers “who would otherwise be laid off.”
This fund would have been a big help in March. Less so in October. By now, districts have already approved budgets and made staffing decisions.
When she first heard about the education jobs money, Gov. Chris Gregoire was cautious, noting that the state’s schools are somewhat better off than other states and wanting to see what rules come with the money.
(She was thrilled with Washington’s share of $16 billion in Medicaid reimbursement money, however. That money will avert more budget cuts and will likely mean more to schools than the teacher jobs money because education might have been target of some of the cuts).
Gregoire, however, has had to ratchet up her enthusiasm since fellow Democrat Murray began using the jobs money to spark her re-election campaign.
Districts can spend the money to retain staff, rehire those laid off or hire new teachers. But if they don’t have laid-off teachers to rehire, what will districts do with the cash? Districts might be reluctant to add staff with one-year money. They already face the budget drop off when money from the federal stimulus ends with the 2011-12 school year.
University Place Superintendent Patti Banks said her district had no layoffs, although it has reduced staff and spending in the face of reduced revenue. It could hire some teachers to make up for past reductions but that might set it up for layoffs next spring.
“It’s just not worth it,” she said.
Banks said the smart move might be to save the new money. While Duncan wants it spent this school year, the department grudgingly allows districts to spend it next year instead when it might help cushion the blow of the end of stimulus money.
“If you can bank it, bank it,” Banks said. “That would be the logical thing to do.”
So, despite the campaign rhetoric, the money is unlikely to have much immediate impact on Washington state schools and school children.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com