New Jersey School District Loses 80 Educators

The recent jobs numbers showed particularly heavy losses among government workers and particularly teachers. West Orange, N.J., has laid off around 80 educators, nearly 10 percent of the total staff. The district is increasing class sizes and cutting back on electives. The federal education jobs bill has not reached districts like West Orange, and many schools say they will hold onto that money until next year, which promises to be even worse.

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In September alone, 50,000 education jobs simply disappeared. Congress had tried to stem the losses with a special $10 billion jobs bill for teachers.

But the extra money was too little, too late to stop the hemorrhaging in many schools, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: West Orange, New Jersey, about a half hour from Manhattan, is a prosperous bedroom community known for a strong school system. But that reputation could be in trouble.

Nicholas Galante, president of the local teachers union, says declining property values and a budget-cutting governor have led to a torrent of bad financial news.

Mr. NICHOLAS GALANTE (President, West Orange Education Association): Our governor took $6.6 million from our budget, and the town council took another two and a half million.

ABRAMSON: That's out of a total budget of $120 million and follows cuts in previous years. This year alone, Galante's union has lost 80 education jobs, nearly 10 percent of the total district staff. You see the effects in every school.

West Orange High School boasts of sending many kids to top colleges, but the school is also proud of its vocational training, like this program for preschool teachers run by Loretta Hallmark(ph).

Ms. LORETTA HALLMARK: Due to budgetary cuts, we lost one teacher in our department, so we are short staffing.

ABRAMSON: Okay. One out of how many?

Ms. HALLMARK: Five. I think you have to understand also that everybody is not academically bound for a topnotch college, and some of the electives prepare our students who are more vocationally oriented, and those are, generally, the electives that get cut first.

ABRAMSON: West Orange has managed to hold on to all of its advance placement courses.

Ms. MICKEY SHULTZ(ph): So DNA has your genetic information. RNA...

ABRAMSON: But teachers like Mickey Shultz say layoffs has made her AP biology course a lot bigger.

Ms. SHULTZ: I went from a class of 14 to a class of 30. There's a lot of information I need to give them, and it's hard to give it to them when I can't look everybody in the eye and see what you're understanding.

ABRAMSON: Students around the country can expect to see bigger classes. It's the easiest way for districts to adjust to slimmer payrolls.

In August, Congress voted to spend $10 billion to save teachers' jobs. So what happened to that money? Well, West Orange hasn't gotten anything yet, and when they do, the state's funding formula means schools here can expect only $300,000 or so, enough for four or five positions.

Now, the federal money has saved jobs in some districts, but Daniel Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators says even areas expecting lots of federal money are holding back on hiring this year.

Mr. DANIEL DOMENECH (Executive Director, American Association of School Administrators): And there were many districts around the country who have made a decision that they were going to bite the bullet this year because they feel that next year is going to be even a worse economic condition for them. And they would rather hold that money in abeyance for next year.

ABRAMSON: As they lobbied for federal support months ago, education groups warned that a quarter million teachers could lose their jobs.

At most, a hundred thousand education jobs have disappeared over the last year, some through retirement. Marguerite Roza, senior data adviser for the Gates Foundation, says staffing is simply rebounding from peak levels reached about five years ago.

Ms. MARGUERITE ROZA (Senior Data and Economic Adviser, Gates Foundation): The system has been adding employees for over a decade. A lot of those employees were added as part of reform efforts that were designed to improve education.

ABRAMSON: That means schools that want to continue improving achievement will have to work smarter. They can't count on any new money to raise test scores.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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