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3 Tips to Help Districts Navigate Educator Layoffs

The end of ESSER funding is converging with declining enrollments, rising salaries and benefits for teachers, and the end of major increases in state school aid that have dominated the last few budget years. They’ve all combined to result in big budget gaps in many districts.

Many of those districts are considering layoffs and eliminating vacant positions, or have already solidified decisions to do so.

It’s a difficult situation that experts expect more districts to face in the coming months and years.

There’s no easy solution—budget cuts and staffing reductions nearly always come with pushback and difficult emotions. But education experts say staying focused on a district’s overarching goals can help guide staffing decisions, and proactively communicating with staff and the community can help everyone get on the same page and ease some frustration.

“This is a widespread issue that we as a nation need to contend with,” said Joe Trawick-Smith, a partner at the nonprofit Education Research Strategies, which provides consulting services to school districts. “District leaders should know they’re not alone—so many are facing significant financial challenges this year.”

Trawick-Smith offered three tips for districts confronting budget shortfalls that may result in layoffs or staffing reductions.

1. Decide on your district’s goals before deciding which positions to cut

Designating a clear set of priorities for the district is a critical step in the budgeting process, and it can make decisions about where in the district to trim staff clearer, Trawick-Smith said.

Using federal COVID-relief funds that expire later this year, districts across the country made major investments in tutoring to bring students’ academic skills back on track following pandemic closures.

If a district facing layoffs wants to prioritize high-dosage tutoring going forward because it has proven to boost students’ academic performance, for example, then district leaders know to look elsewhere for staff reductions.

That doesn’t make the work easier, Trawick-Smith said, but it does give it purpose.

“Districts need to be clear about what their vision is for the future, along with clearly articulating what the challenges are they need to overcome to get there,” he said. “We have to make sure constituents understand the direction we’re headed as a system, and that’s why we have to make these tough choices now.”

2. Don’t try to preserve pieces of every program

In the spirit of setting clear and intentional goals, Trawick-Smith said, it’s important that districts hold firm to those priorities. It can be tempting to make smaller, incremental staffing cuts in an effort to preserve all existing programs and services for students.

But if district leaders have a set of clear goals for student outcomes and school priorities, it makes more sense to ensure the programs that support those goals are fully staffed. That means making difficult, intentional cuts in other areas, Trawick-Smith said.

“We understand why that pressure exists, but what that ultimately ends up doing is just leading schools to a point where they are left to do all of the same things but with a lot less resources, and reduces the likelihood we’re actually going to move the needle on student outcomes.”

3. Communicate budget realities to community members early and often

Staffing cuts and layoffs, even if the right decision, can cause tension and unease in schools and the broader community. Districts can prevent some of this tension with early, public communication about their financial condition.

Rather than unveiling the difficult reality of a district’s financial situation during the annual budget process, leaders can be proactive and begin communicating in the fall about anticipated challenges based on changes in enrollment or revenue sources, Trawick-Smith said.

The more district leaders can explain about the root causes of budget problems, the more community members will understand when it’s time to make difficult decisions around staffing reductions or changes to existing programs, he said.

Aligning the district’s public communications with its overarching goals and priorities can help community members and staff make sense of the situation, Trawick-Smith said.

District leaders should, as much as possible, articulate “what they’re trying to provide to their community, not what they’re having to take away,” he said.

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