Layoffs hit schools hard, costing several teachers their jobs

Andy James counted himself lucky when he landed his first teaching job at Chautauqua Elementary School three years ago.

With the enthusiasm of a beginner, he dived into the job, bringing what one parent affectionately called his out-of-the-box thinking into the classroom. He soon had kids in his fourth-grade class building their own continents, adding mountain ranges, rivers, countries and cities — and learning earth science, geography, math and culture along the way.

Now, James is one of several teachers losing his job at the Vashon Island School District, the result of a statewide budget crisis that has punched a $1 million hole into Vashon’s already stressed budget.

Parents say the loss is considerable.

“He’s gotten my child to love learning,” Laura Wheeler said of James.

“He does things in the classroom that the other teachers don’t. And I love that about him,” she added. “It’s a huge loss for Chautauqua.”

All told, the district is losing 10 full-time positions — a complex shuffling of roles that is costing 16 educators either their whole job or a portion of it.

The high school is losing a half-time counselor — a position that parents successfully fought to maintain after budget problems last year nearly cost the high school the position. The district’s three librarians — one for each school library — will be reduced to one, a librarian who will have to oversee all three libraries, under a plan that is stirring considerable controversy.

A math teacher at the high school got a pink slip as did a teacher who splits her time between Chautauqua and McMurray Middle School.

The layoffs — one of the worst in recent years — is hitting many members of the small school district hard. After the board voted last week to issue the layoff notices recommended by staff, one administrator cried as she left the room.

School Superintendent Terry Lindquist called the process “devastating.”

“I’ve never felt so awful,” he said.

The cuts follow a tough legislative session that included a $800 million reduction in state support to public schools. Most of that money was cut from Initiative 728, a measure approved by voters in 2000 to reduce class sizes. Between 3,000 and 5,000 teachers are expected to be out of a job this fall. Lindquist said he heard the number could be as high as 6,000.

School district officials had hoped an effort by the Legislature would have spared Vashon and several other districts some of the financial pain. At Gov. Chris Gregoire’s urging, a plan was floated in the Legislature to lift the so-called levy lid, a state-imposed limit on the percentage of a school district’s budget that can come from property taxes. Vashon is one of 75 districts that has reached the levy limit and stood to benefit if the lid had been lifted.

When the Legislature exhausted their 105-day regular session on April 27 with out having addressed the issue, Gregoire said she planned to bring lawmakers back for a one-day special session. Last week, however, she announced she wouldn’t call a special session, after legislative leaders from the House and Senate failed to agree to a limited agenda for the one-day gathering.

Bob Hennessey, the school district’s board chair, said Gregoire’s announcement “was like getting kicked in the gut, because we knew that the worst case would become reality.”

Had the levy lid been lifted, the district might have been able to collect another $400,000 in taxes. Now, said Hennessey, the district has to close a $1 million gap, much of it due to the state reductions, but some of it also stemming from a 40-student drop in enrollment at Chautauqua and an increase in pay to teachers included in last year’s contract negotiations.

Hennessey said the district plans to do all it can to make cuts elsewhere as it shapes its upcoming budget, efforts that may mean the district will be able to restore at least one of the cut positions. The board, for instance, is considering reducing the district’s bus transportation, ending what Hennessey calls the “driveway-to-driveway” service Island parents have come to expect.

But the board chair said he anticipates controversy over the proposal. “I expect we’re going to be in the middle of a very difficult maelstrom when parents see where they’re going to have to get their kids to,” he said.

The district is also about to embark on a voluntary fundraising effort, a proposal the board endorsed after school board member Laura Wishik said parents should be allowed to financially support the schools if it means saving some teaching positions.

“My hope is that we’re able to raise enough money to bring back at least two FTEs (full-time equivalents),” Wishik said.

Parents, teachers and school administrators, meanwhile, are trying to come to terms with the far-reaching implications of the staff reductions.

Susan Hanson, principal at Vashon High School, said she’s already begun thinking about the ramification of losing a half-time counseling position, one-fourth of the school’s counseling staff.

“That’s going to be huge,” she said. “We’re going to have to look at the scope of work that our counselors do and figure out what parts are essential.”

Kate Baehr, Chautauqua’s principal, said several positions are going to be affected at the elementary school, a complex puzzle that will touch nearly everyone in the small school.

“It’s so difficult,” she said. “Anyone who’s affected, it touches 10 others and those 10, 100 others.”

Those who received pink slips said they knew they were vulnerable; still, they said, they news has hit them hard.

Joleen McCauley, a first-year teacher who learned last week that she won’t be returning in the fall, split her time between a kindergarten class and a sixth-grade humanities class. Trained to teach at the elementary-school level, she said she’s come to love working with older kids as well.

“I feel just broken-hearted,” she said. “I got the middle school job five days before school started — and I fell in love with it.”

As for James, the popular fourth-grade teacher who’s losing his job, he said he counts himself as lucky among his peers in the state — other teachers new to the ranks who will soon find themselves looking for a job in a tough climate. His wife, a veterinarian, works full-time and has benefits, he noted, so his family won’t be financially devastated.

He also said he plans to figure out a way to keep doing what he loves — working as a substitute teacher and plugging into the Island’s active home-schooling community, where tutors often play a role.

Still, he said, “I’ll be very sad when I don’t come back in September.”

“I had three really fantastic years at Chautauqua, with really supportive parents and a great staff to work with,” he added. “It may take a few years, but I hope I’ll be back.”

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