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Teacher Layoffs Are Mounting. How Districts Can Soften the Blow

Amid an expected $44 million budget deficit largely attributed to the end of federal COVID relief funds, the Fort Worth school board in February approved the elimination of 133 jobs; 129 of them had been funded by pandemic aid.

The Texas district is one of many that has come face to face with a stark reality: Schools won’t have enough money next year for everything they’re doing this year, and there will be workforce reductions.

Like district leaders in most other places eyeing budget cuts, Superintendent Angelica Ramsey in Fort Worth said cutting jobs is the last option.

“We’re finding efficiencies throughout the school district. We’re looking at budgets. We’re looking at contracts. We’re looking at every place we can, so that employees are the last to be impacted,” Ramsey said, according to the Fort Worth Report.

In Howard County, Md., district leaders are considering eliminating 348 positions in an attempt to offset a $103 million budget shortfall expected for the 2024-25 school year. The total budget is expected to be around $1.1 billion.

Since “a significant portion of our budget is staff, we cannot address the structural financial challenges without impacting staff,” Acting Superintendent Bill Barnes said, adding that he expects a 13.6 percent increase in employee health insurance costs, the news website Patch reported.

The story is similar in districts from Pasadena, Calif., to Little Rock, Ark., to Buffalo, N.Y.

For the last four years, ESSER funds have buoyed budgets and protected districts from the fiscal impacts of declining student enrollment, rising costs of employee salaries and benefits, and widespread inflation.

Even as ESSER funds dry up, some states are also scaling back their own K-12 education investments. But academic recovery and student mental health needs continue to pose major challenges—and costs.

For most districts that have announced or are considering layoffs, the budget crunch isn’t coming as a surprise. School finance experts have warned ever since Congress approved pandemic relief aid in 2020 and 2021 that districts could face a funding cliff if they didn’t prepare for the end of the grant period.

In particular, finance experts advised districts against using the majority of funds for recurring expenses like staff salaries. Some districts forged ahead anyway, either planning to cut staff once ESSER funds ran out, or hoping to find alternative funding sources to keep valuable staff on the payroll past 2024.

“In many cases, the most strategic and responsible investments were investing in staff,” said Joe Trawick-Smith, a partner at the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, which provides consulting services to districts. “It was a response to the needs of kids at that time, and now we’re just in a different place in terms of funding to support those investments more long-term.”

Some districts, like the Mansfield schools in Texas, have managed to craft budgets for next school year that won’t cost anyone their job. But even there, stability may not last, said Michele Trongaard, the district’s associate superintendent for business and finance.

“We’re right on the cusp” of needing to lay people off, Trongaard said. “Decisions don’t have to be made today, but we do need to have conversations.”

Districts should develop a clear path forward

The number of districts forced to consider staffing cuts is likely to grow in the coming months.

It’s a difficult, albeit sometimes necessary, decision that can create tension and unease in communities, so it’s important district leaders approach the situation with empathy and intention.

Most struggling districts’ budgets didn’t get to a difficult point due to mismanagement or irresponsible decisionmaking, Trawick-Smith said. Rather, districts in recent years were responding to a variety of crises and challenges as they navigated pandemic recovery, he 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,” Trawick-Smith said.

That means districts need to have clear goals for their students and schools prior to deciding what positions to eliminate. Then, they can make staffing decisions around which programs are most important to keep—if a district wants to prioritize high-dosage tutoring, for example.

“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,” Trawick-Smith 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.”

District leaders should try to avoid pressures to “do a little bit of everything” and try to preserve all existing programs and services by “making incremental cuts across the board,” he added.

“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,” he said.

Layoffs come at a cost

The people losing their jobs aren’t the only ones affected by layoffs.

Along with fewer professionals in buildings and staffing important programs, eliminating positions often results in tension with local staff unions, anxiety among those whose jobs were spared, and community concerns.

“These are real adults with real relationships with students and families, so it’s painful,” Trawick-Smith said. “Reducing positions often means removing people that have been a part of a school community, and even when that is the right choice going forward, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s really hard for everyone involved.”

Following community pushback in December, the Westland, Mich., school board unanimously rejected a plan to lay off nearly 40 employees.

Prior to that decision, community members flocked to a public meeting and, during what local media described as “an hours-long public comment period,” told administrators and school board members that the cuts would come at a cost to students’ learning. Union leaders said the move would be an unfair labor practice.

Even after the school board backed off the layoff proposal, community members expressed a hope for clearer communication and transparency in the future to rebuild trust.

Trawick-Smith said it’s important that district leaders begin communicating about budget realities early, and not just wait to announce a shortfall when unveiling the annual budget proposal.

That could include hosting informal conversations beginning in the fall with staff and community members about anticipated challenges—whether changes in enrollment or revenue sources, Trawick-Smith said.

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

And as districts confront the immediate pressure to balance this year’s budget, Trawick-Smith said it’s important to keep looking ahead.

Achieving financial stability “is not going to be a one-year process,” he said, so it’s important to set clear goals and create a plan to align resources accordingly.

“We have to also be thinking about how to get out in front of some of these issues and make decisions that are going to set districts up for longer-term success,” he said, “rather than just playing catch-up.”

The Des Moines schools in Iowa will eliminate roughly 10 teaching positions, mostly in high schools, and 22 to 25 central office positions after this school year.

Part of the motivation behind cutting central office positions is to signal to community members and unions that the district is keeping the classroom as its top priority.

Shashank Aurora, the district’s chief financial officer, typically presents the prospect of layoffs to departments in these terms: If you can save the same number of dollars without cutting a job, do that.

“The idea is to reduce costs, not to reduce headcount,” Aurora said.

His department, for instance, recently collaborated with the district’s health insurance provider to work on reducing extraneous fees. That saved almost $1 million, and “I don’t have to eliminate any positions in my department,” he said.

Layoffs aren’t always inevitable

Lawmakers in Texas didn’t allocate any additional funding to school districts during the most recent legislative session. An influx of English learners to the state’s schools hasn’t prompted the state to increase investment in services for those students. And the state in recent years has required districts to invest in new expenses like school security without supplying funds.

As a result, many districts are pondering staffing cuts. But that’s not the only approach to closing budget gaps, said Trongaard from the Mansfield district.

Some districts are investing in marketing to convince families who are new to the area or previously opted out of the school system that they should enroll, allowing schools to draw additional state funding. Some are closing school buildings and consolidating operations without meaningfully shrinking the teaching staff.

Trongaard’s district will likely avoid layoffs this year. That’s in part because of creative alternatives she’s employed to trim costs.

For instance, district-employed police officers were required to drive their district vehicles to a central location at the end of each workday, and then drive their own car home.

“It added in a lot of overtime, so we allowed them to take [the cruisers] straight home,” Trongaard said. “Now the fuel budget went up, but not as much as the overtime [decreased].”

The district also allows community groups to host meetings in the performing arts center at one of its schools. But that means hiring a custodial contractor to maintain that building during off hours. “We’re going to get rid of that,” she said.

Technology repairs represent another budget item that’s ballooned in recent years, as the number of district-owned devices increased with the onset of the COVID pandemic. Instead of paying for expensive technology insurance for the district’s device stockpile, Mansfield now employs a handful of interns who lead repair efforts.

“Some districts are facing deficits right away, some are feeling OK, but nobody’s rich,” Trongaard said.

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