Amid budget worries, D.C. teachers scramble for jobs

Hundreds of D.C. teachers wearing business suits and earnest expressions crowded into a school cafeteria one afternoon last week to reapply for jobs after getting word from the central office that their positions would be eliminated.

“It’s a meat market in there,” said Adele Mujal, a social studies teacher who waited in long lines for a few interviews at the School Without Walls near the White House. After one year at Ross Elementary School, she was told that her position was being eliminated. She wants to keep working in the District but is unsure of her prospects. “I don’t think there’s that many openings,” she said.

After four years of education budget cuts across the Washington region and the country, class sizes have grown larger and teaching jobs more scarce in many school systems. This year the economic recovery is providing modest relief in some Northern Virginia schools, but a drop in federal aid is complicating budgets elsewhere. Everywhere, schools are doing more with less.

In Prince George’s County, where housing revenues continue to fall and a $100 million infusion of federal stimulus dollars has dried up, schools are particularly strained. The school board in February approved a budget that would eliminate more than 1,300 jobs and increase average class size by one student in most grades. Montgomery County school leaders are preparing for the possibility of cutting 600 positions in the coming school year, after eliminating 400 in the current year and increasing class size by an average of one student across the system. Budgets have not been finalized in either place.

Northern Virginia, where the housing market has recovered more quickly, is beginning a comeback in school spending. Prince William County schools are maintaining staffing levels and boosting teacher salaries for the first time in two years. Bonnie Klakowicz, president of the Prince William Education Association, said the approved 1.75 percent cost-of-living adjustment and bonus of six-tenths of 1 percent are a good start. “We are pleased with the way this turned out,” she said. “We got nothing last year.”

Salaries frozen in recent years will begin to inch up again in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties. “This is a recovery budget. We are starting back down the road we want to be on,” Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said. Loudoun plans to open its 80th school next year.

The salary growth in Arlington will be offset in part by a one-student increase in the average class size in high school. But in Fairfax, where the budget will not be finalized until the end of the month, board members are considering spending more money to bring full-day kindergarten to the remaining 38 elementary schools, a long-term goal that was sidelined during several years of cuts.

Such bright spots are the exception nationwide, said John McClain, a senior fellow at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. With 19 consecutive months of increases in average home prices and at least 13 months of steady job growth, the Washington region is “an island,” he said. “We are about the only major metropolitan area that is in recovery right now.”

Thousands of protesters gathered in New York City on Thursday, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed laying off 4,100 teachers to balance a city budget battered by rising pension costs and a steep drop in state aid. Twenty-thousand teachers received pink slips in March across California, said Rick Pratt, assistant executive director for the California School Boards Association. Some of those jobs could be recovered when the state budget is done, but already class sizes have pushed fire-code limits in some cities, and the ratio of librarians and school counselors to students is among the highest in the nation, he said.

In the District and elsewhere, potential layoffs have become highly politicized with debates over the way teachers are hired and fired.

The District’s public school budget would grow by 12 percent, according to a plan Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) proposed last month, with help from a growing commercial real estate market. But many principals still ended up with less money to spend in schools next year, thanks to significant increases in teacher salaries and special-education spending. Those budget changes, combined with shifting enrollment and programs, led school officials to notify more than 380 teachers, librarians and other unionized personnel that they would have to seek other jobs in the system.

Under a previous collective-bargaining agreement, D.C. teachers who lost their positions due to restructuring or downsizing were guaranteed another position, and decisions were made based on seniority. Now, under the new contract negotiated by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, principals can include job performance in their decisions. Union officials have said the new system targets older teachers who earn more.

Koura Gibson, a French teacher who has worked in District public schools since 1987, attended the job fair Wednesday. She said she has more seniority than anyone in her department at F.W. Ballou Senior High School. She said she also has a doctorate, certification in two foreign languages, extensive experience abroad and many past positive evaluations. So she was surprised when she was the only teacher in her department whose position was cut. She attributes the move to conflict with her principal and a negative review she got.

“We all want the best people there for our students,” she said. “But don’t let people go for the wrong reasons.”

Staff writer Robert Samuels contributed to this report.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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