Minutes before an April 30 press conference to announce there'd be no teacher layoffs this coming school year, a San Diego City Schools spokesperson casually passed around a photocopied e-mail sent from the teachers union to the district a half-hour prior. Few of the gathered media had a chance to look it over until after the press conference was finished.
What the e-mail said is that the district had overestimated the costs of health care benefits and salary increases by roughly $35 million, that's one-fourth of the district's $147 million budget shortfall. The district's explanation is that it's better to overestimate than underestimate, which, of course, makes sense.
However, in the climate of distrust, confusion and bitterness that's plagued the school district, this little accounting error sparked suspicion that the large number of pink slips sent to district teachers, not only in San Diego (1,487) but in other districts as well, were a tactic to scare the teachers union into accepting cuts to pay and benefits.
On the same day a Union-Tribune editorial trumpeted, "Budget success: Pesta, Bersin set example for cooperation," Superintendent Alan Bersin told CityBeat that the teachers union would rather have seen their members lose their jobs than take cuts to pay or benefits, which eat up more than half of the district's budget.
Teachers union President Terry Pesta had this to say in response: "We've worked too hard to get our compensation package to where it is today. Educators are traditionally underpaid, and our benefits package helps us get closer to the pay we deserve. If we give back salary or benefits, we'll probably never get them back."
And so it goes.
Exactly two months ago, San Diego City Schools, facing its worst budget crisis ever, sent pink slips out to 20 percent of its teachers, advising them that they'd know by May 15, when the state would decide whether to cut class-size-reduction funding, if they would get to keep their jobs. Currently, the state doles out money to keep kindergarten through third grade classes at 19.5 students or less. If class-size-reduction money was nixed and every kindergarten through third grade class in the district ballooned to the maximum 29.7 (average) kids, 653 teachers would no longer be needed.
Because of a tricky formula that takes into account who's got what credential and how many years' experience, pink slips went out to teachers at various grade levels, not just K-3. Their jobs would be spared only if two things happened: the district was able to dredge up savings by making massive cuts away from the classroom and at least 600 older teachers opted to take part in an enticing early-retirement plan that probably wouldn't have happened if the teachers union hadn't suggested itÑpractically demanded itÑback in January.
Fortunately for those 1,487 teachers--most of them very young and still clinging to the idealism that decided their career, all pink slips were officially rescinded April 30, after the district determined that $70 million in budget cuts, combined with the 700 or so teachers who took early retirement, was enough to keep all its teachers employed. Unfortunately, however, this came only after two months of miserable uncertainty.
Teachers are, for the most part, a special bunch, willing to take on an emotional load that sometimes rivals their actual workload. And, in San Diego City Schools where 62 percent of the student population is considered to live in poverty, a good teacher unwittingly takes on the roles of counselor, protector and role model.
Since March 15, CityBeat has talked to a number of teachers facing potential layoffs; attended a frustrating information session where pink slip recipients were told, basically, that they lacked the skills to make it in the "real" job world [CityBeat's "Outside the Lines," March 26]; and tried to make sense of how members of this valuable profession got caught in such a bind.
Following are the stories of four teachers who'll, thankfully, be around come this fall.
At a restaurant not known for its steaks,Tommy Flanagan let the one on the plate in front of him go uneaten for almost an hour, not because it was a little overcooked but because eating it would prevent him from saying what he wanted to say.
"None of this needed to be done at all," he maintains, citing district fiscal mismanagement as the source of the pink slips. Like many of his peers, he's fixated on the $700,000 the Board of Education approved on April 22 that will fund production of a video training program for teachers. "There's a lot of fat that could be cut," he said, referring not to the steak getting cold on his plate, but to his employers.
Shaved head, earrings, a Lakers tattoo on one leg and an unshakable pro-union stance, the 36-year-old Detroit native has been one of the loudest voices opposing the notices he and 1,486 of his peers received two months ago. His toughness is assuaged, however, by his willingness to admit that, like a lot of other teachers he knows, he's had to start taking prescription anti-depressants to get through the day.
"A lot of teachers are feeling beaten up not just for the layoff notices, but for the last five years," he said, the five years referring to the start of the district's current administration.
"Teachers are some of the most collected, professional, mellow people in the world," said Flanagan. "What does it take to bring us to this point? I know life can be better, but I will not leave this district because then I will be giving up on my kids."
Flanagan teaches at one of the district's "atypical" schools, McDowell Elementary, a sixth-grade-only school in Clairemont Mesa that serves nearly 400 students, bussed in from overcrowded South-of-8 classrooms.
On the day Flanagan talked to CityBeat, the district hadn't yet officially announced that it wouldn't be laying off any teachers, but even with the publicized statements from Bersin and Board of Education President Ron Ottinger that no teachers would be laid off, Flanagan was skeptical. He'll believe his job is safe, he said, only after he's received that letter from the district. And even then it would be awhile before the bad feelings go away. He had attended one of the infamous information sessions the district held for noticed teachers back in March at which the mostly 20- and 30-something crowd was told they'd have to "retool" their skills if they wanted to be competitive in the job market.
"It was like, 'Buckle up, you're not going to be a teacher anymore--but here, you can go sell insurance,'" he recalled, still smarting from the disrespect he feels his profession got that day. "[Teaching] is a 24-hour-a-day job. You're always planning, researching and looking for new things.
"First week of spring break," he said, "I had dreams about my kids because I wonder if they're OK. You take that kind of thing home with you."
Flanagan comes from a family of teachers and says he's seen how it could be, and, he said, he knows "how it's not" in this district.
"The district doesn't understand the difference between fear and respect. If we respect you, we'll die on the battlefield for you. If we fear you, we'll turn on you the first chance we get.
"I don't respect Mr. Bersin," Flanagan said without flinching. "I see no concern for the children at all in his voice, in his eyes, in his actions."
Flanagan admits he's been "written up," for speaking his mind about district policy, but holds fast to his constitutional right to do that, at this point he said he really doesn't care whose wrath he incurs by his words.
But ultimately, he softens when speaking about his students and how, at the end of the day, they're the panacea for whatever happens outside the classroom. "I love working in this district," Flanagan admits. "I like the population I teach. I want a rainbow in my room. I want to work with disadvantaged kids; I think I click with them. I want diversity and this district has that.
"If it weren't for the kids," he said, "I'd be going crazy, but I see them, and I see them smiling and I remember why I'm here."
Indoors on a pleasant Saturday in April, Andrea Brunson has a file box of students' notebooks at her feet, a stack of papers to her left, another pile to her right. Somewhere amid the piles is a stack that she's already graded; her constructive suggestions in blue pen fill the margins. She picks up one of the graded essays and hands it over, revealing the work of a seventh grader who'll likely ace the writing proficiency exam when he gets to high school.
The Stanford-educated 27-year-old chooses her words carefully; it's mid-April and at this point there's no telling how many noticed teachers will keep their jobs. She's been teaching for five years, working in private schools and for the district as a professional expert in creative writing and as a reading remediation specialist. But when it comes down to it, seniority decides who stays and who goes and her official start date with the district was just last September. As a first-year "probationary" teacher, Brunson, despite her smarts and thus far promising career, would be the first to go.
"When the layoff [notices] first happened, I spent many nights crying," Brunson admitted. "To be told that I might no longer have a future in education unless I choose to move to a different city, which I'm not going to do, was really horrifying and very depressing, not just for myself but everybody I know who's in a similar situation."
That was back in March. Now, she said, she's feeling a little hopeful. "I think things are looking a little bit better," she mused, referring to the growing belief at that point in mid-April that teachers' jobs will be spared. "But at the same time, there's nothing that's going to release the tension and fear that we're feeling until we actually get a written response from the district. Until the moment I have that piece of paper, I have to assume I don't have a job and do everything in my power to secure employment for the next year."
So far she's applied for positions at three different private schools, one of them among the most prestigious in the county. But her passion, she said, is public education. She teaches at Taft Junior High in Serra Mesa, one of the district's more ethnically diverse schools, comprising kids from working-class and military families.
Brunson said she's frustrated that the district's finance people didn't seem to see this coming. "I'm surprised that such intelligent people who are supposed to be planning long-range couldn't see ahead of time that this was a possibility and therefore maybe stash away money in some kind of account so they had a buffer for these kinds of cuts." Frustration, inevitably, compels one to place blame, but unlike many of her peers who rail against the district, Brunson's criticism stretches beyond San Diego City Schools.
"I think that it's a societal problem in general," she said, "going beyond the state or the district. The macrocosmic level would be society. I think that we place a lot of lip service upon the value of education and the value of teachers, but historically speaking, if you look at the way teachers are compensated for their time and treated by society. People say to me, 'teachers should make the most money of anyone in the country because you're the ones that are educating the future of our nation,' but if you look at what teachers are actually paid and the way we are treated by our employers, in general there is a lack of respect, I feel, toward people that choose teaching as their profession.
"If you don't value education as a society truly," she continued, "then the politicians you elect will give lip service to valuing education but not follow through on that when they pass bills. Those same bills will then have a major effect within schools in the states. That's what's happened in California."
Brunson says she works up to 60 hours a week. To earn extra money, she tutors after school, and during the summer she holds creative writing workshops. On top of that, she's working towards her master's degree in education. She's not ready to give any of that up.
"Working in San Diego City Schools is a complicated challenge; it's an adventure. There has never been an easy moment, but at the same time it has been valuable and worthwhile and something that I would really hope to continue.
"I love teaching," she said. "I love the demographic that I teach, I love the school where I teach. I don't want to go anywhere else, yet I have to look out for my own best interest. I'm 27 years old; I don't have substantial savings; I'm not married. I would like to have children someday and I have to think about that future and protect it.
"So, I think all the time about what happens if I choose to continue on with the district for another year and then we arrive in the same position again next spring, and yet next spring there won't be 496 teachers to retire to make up the difference. At that point, then I'm really out of luck."
On May 1, the day after the district announced all teachersÑeven probationary teachers, would keep their jobs, Brunson, in an e-mail to CityBeat, was overjoyed.
The following day, however, she sent this: "I am losing my job at Taft, due to the closing down of a local housing development. Our student enrollment is going down by 150 kids, so they are [reassigning] four teachers. This means I have a job with the district, but God knows where. It has been a rough day, and I am very upset."
A slightly pudgy African-American boy, maybe 11 years old, sat on a low wall just outside the main gate of North Park Elementary School. A book was propped in his lap, and he quickly slammed it closed when a car pulled up, a low-riding maroon Nissan Sentra with tinted windows, custom rims and bass-heavy rap music pumping so loud you could feel it as you walked by.
The boy put the book under his arm, slung his backpack over his shoulder and climbed into the car's passenger seat.
Kim Moore knows that for most of his students, their school life and home life are two different worlds. One hundred percent of the students at North Park Elementary live below the poverty line. Most families rent rather than own, and it's rare a child will start and finish at the same school, since September, Moore has lost eight students to this reality.
Though they're slowly improving, the school's standardized test scores haven't made it out of the bottom two quartiles. Nevertheless, the school is a haven. The student population is small at roughly 300 students, and the campus comprises earth-tone bungalows built around a central courtyard. It's a space where a young person can feel protected.
Inside Moore's classroom, Bach plays in the background and there's a faint smell of vanilla incense. A small fountain gurgles and everything feels exactly in placeÑorderly yet completely comfortable. "Anything that the kids can hold onto and [that makes them] want to come to school, we're going to try to do it for them," he says.
Moore is soft-spoken and infectiously positive. A former Navy officer-turned real estate salesman, he gladly took a 50 percent pay cut to become a teacher. He's been teaching in the district for four years, tenured for two, so when word of pink slips first came out, he was sure his job would be safe.
"I was really surprised," he said. "I was getting information that they were going to lay off first- and second-year teachers, so I didn't even think it was an issue. So I'm plugging along and then three weeks later out comes the pink slips and I get one.
"It totally took the wind out of my sails, so to speak," he said. "I was thinking, wow, after all this work I might not be working next year as a teacher."
Moore said he was told not to worryÑthat enough teachers would opt for early retirement, "but you can never really count on that," he said. He decided to play it safe and explore his options. Chicago, he found out, was desperate for teachers, especially at inner-city schools, so he took a trip out there to investigate. But San Diego is home, he said, smiling. "It's hard to beat the weather."
Over the last couple months, Moore has remained mostly quiet about his job situation. He respects his fellow teachers' compulsion to voice their frustrations, but he said he's so wrapped up in teaching, drawing up lesson plans and grading papers that he had to take on a "things-will-happen-as-they-happen" attitude.
"I feel that everyone should do what their gut instinct is to do, and if that's the way to voice their opinion or to rally the troops, that's great. But I won't do that just because that's not my personal style."
And neither did his kids know that their teacher might not be around come September. "I don't bring that stuff into the classroom," Moore said. "I don't think the kids should be involved. To have to put an element of doubt in their mind that I won't be back, there's too much other stuff we have to work on."
While the district has its "Blueprint babies" first and second graders who know only San Diego City Schools' almost three-year-old literacy-based curriculum program, Moore calls himself a Blueprint teacher. The Blueprint is what's shaped his teaching and, unlike many of his peers, he believes in the program's value. The curriculum, he said, helps his kids be more competitive, for students whose parents often work two or more jobs to make ends meet, motivation sometimes needs to come from within the student rather than from parents who might be too tired or get home too late to help their kids with school work.
For Moore and the two other noticed North Park Elementary teachers, being a Blueprint teacher became something of a safety net.
"We're thinking, why would Bersin want to get rid of these teachers who are trained to teach as he wants us to teach as opposed to others who are still fighting what's going on in the schools. So we figured he's going to find a way to keep us because we're his meat and potatoes as to proving what he's trying to accomplish in the district."
But, given California's seemingly endless financial crisis, what about next March 15 when another set of notices might need to go out? "I'm not worried about next March," Moore said. "And if it does happen, then maybe Chicago becomes a better option.
"But," he said. "I think we're going to be OK."
At just 26 years old, Nicole McMurray's the chair of the math department at Montgomery Academy in Linda Vista. Last year, Montgomery had a 50-percent turnover and everyone who had seniority over her has left, bumping her up to a leadership role usually filled by a veteran teacher. In March, 19 of the 35 teachers at her site received pink slips.
McMurray, who wears her long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and has earrings running up both ears, is perhaps best known for publicly telling the school board that the copious, costly teacher training that pulled her out of the classroom more than 30 days last year has taught her to "sit, roll over and play dead."
"I should have become a consultant," she quipped to the board, then at least she'd have some job security.
McMurray is direct, sarcastic and well spoken. When asked what she's been through since March 15, she pulls her pink slip (which is actually on white district letterhead) from her bag and points to the scary legalese that comprises official pre-layoff notices.
"You felt like you were being accused," she said. "There exists cause for terminating you,'" she read from the letter. "I'm like, What? The cause is that I decided to become a teacher? All right, I'm guilty.'"
McMurray talked to CityBeat a week before the district rescinded the pink slips, and at that point she resisted speculating on whether or not she'd have a job in the fall. On May 15 there was to be an en masse hearing to determine whether the district had followed proper procedure and could prove just cause for giving teachers notice. Being eligible to participate in the hearing was an ordeal in itself, she said. Teachers had been told that because of the hearing, official layoff notices wouldn't go out until June 30.
"It just feels like, oh great, I get to stress out about it that much longer," she said. "The whole process has been confusing. It just seems," she pauses for a moment, "very confusing. A lot of 'if' questions."
Right now, she said, being a teacher "is not fun." The day after she received her pink slip, she had four administrators come into her classroom unannounced to observe her teach. Why they were there, she still doesn't know.
She asked her school principal to stop classroom observations, at least for the younger teachers, until after the pink slip situation had calmed down, the observations were too much for some of them to handle. "Can we videotape you, can we bring other schools to come see you? You'll have 10 adults in your room who are scouring over your children. Some of the other teachers are like, 'Why should I care, I don't have job security.'
"The biggest part of our job that's fun is when the door is closed and you get to actually play with the kids and teach, but the rest of it's not fun now and there's constant pressure that someone can come into your room at any point and you will have the lessons done a certain way--it's constant."
At Montgomery, there are eight administrators for 800 students. "They're great people," McMurray said, "and they want the best for the kids, but it puts this constant big-brother feeling." Sometimes, she said, "it feels like they've been instructed not to say anything positive, though that's lessened this year because they've realized what a negative impact it's had."
McMurray's sister, who is in a teacher-training program in Ontario, Canada told Nicole that San Diego City Schools served as a model of what can happen when there's a problem with low teacher morale.
McMurray's one of dozens of noticed teachers who carried out a sort of silent protest, wearing black and pinned-on pink pieces of paper. "The students see that," she said, "and they want to be supportive, so suddenly half my students had pink slips on. They want to go out and they want to protest and be supportive for their teachers who they think they're going to lose.
"Kids know what's going on," she continued. Her students have noticed the effects budget cuts have had on their learning environment. "With the lack of supplies, I don't see how they're going to maintain class-size reduction," she said. "Teachers are paying for supplies out of their own pocket because they feel that's what they have to do to maintain an effective classroom."
McMurray said that if she were to be laid off, she's looked at job opportunities outside of teaching, specifically with nonprofit organizations. "Things I can agree with," she said. "My heart is in helping people. That's why I became a teacher."