Deadline Looms for Calif. Districts to Layoff Teachers

School districts across California are reeling because of millions of dollars of proposed education cuts in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget. March 15 is the deadline to give teachers layoff notices, and thousands of them will go out across the state. A particularly hard-hit school district offers a look at the reality of the cuts. Tamara Keith reports from member station KQED.

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California is one of many states grappling with serious budget deficits. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed closing the budget gap by cutting more than $4 billion in school funding. And by this Saturday, thousands of teachers and administrators will know whether they're being laid off.

Tamara Keith of member station KQED reports on how it's playing out in one district.

Unidentified Woman: All right. Gary Covacano(ph) you'll be given two minutes.

TAMARA KEITH: It's been happening all over California, in packed chambers like this one in Davis. One after another, people plead what the school board to save their favorite programs. William Jiles(ph) is a junior at the Da Vinci High School.

Mr. WILLIAM JILES (Student): Look around. There're so many students here with flooding in to the halls. We are here saying this program works. This school works.

KEITH: But his school wasn't spared. Earlier this week, nine out of the 12 teachers at the small technology-focused high school received layoff notices. To balance its budget, the Davis school board voted to cut everything from elementary music and science programs to math and foreign language teachers. Associate Superintendent Jenny Davis says her own job is gone, too.

Ms. JENNY DAVIS (Associate Superintendent, California): California does not have people call it (unintelligible) or cut the fat, whatever that means. We don't have that in California schools. So what we're really cutting are really highly valued programs for kids.

KEITH: She says in all, her district sent pink slips to 20 percent of its teachers. The layoff can be rescinded if the lot for schools improves in the state budget. But Associate Superintendent Davis says she isn't convinced that will happen.

Ms. DAVIS: And we've had to say to our principals: Don't reassure your teacher that they're probably going to come back. We can't promise that.

KEITH: In California, schools rely more on state funding and local funding. And that's sets it apart from most other states. This means schools here have to base their budgets for next year and their layoff plans on the governor's current budget proposal. They're looking to Democrats who control the legislator for a reprieve, and the Democrats are dead set against the current budget plan. Instead, they're pushing for tax increases and pledging to hold up the budget if that's what it takes to protect schools.

Mr. KEVIN GORDON (Education Lobbyist; President, School Innovations and Advocacy): So that means the likelihood things will get better is pretty high.

KEITH: That's education lobbyist Kevin Gordon. He says even if the proposed cuts don't go through with layoff notices going out now for some teachers, a budget deal will come too late.

Mr. GORDON: These - many times - young, bright individuals go to some other field. They're gone. We are not getting those people back once they leave teaching.

KEITH: Schwarzenegger administration officials acknowledge that legally mandated timing of pink slips is problematic, but they say the cuts are necessary. In fact, the governor is calling for a 10 percent reduction in all state spending. His administration is pressing Democrats and the legislature to begin budget talks right away so the uncertainty can end for schools like Da Vinci High in Davis.

Mr. RODY BOONCHOUY (English Teacher, Da Vinci High School): I know, I know. Have a seat guys. Have a seat. Go ahead and get your computer started up.

KEITH: For English teacher Rody Boonchouy, the uncertainty has reached all the way in to his classroom. His students are upset and want to talk about the layoff.

Mr. BOONCHOUY: But we need to move on. So how are we doing with (unintelligible) and the Western Front?

Unidentified Man: Good.

Mr. BOONCHOUY: We are having our novel unit test on Monday.

Unidentified Group: Tuesday.

Mr. BOONCHOUY: On Tuesday.

KEITH: In the school's quad at lunch time, Boonchouy that he's been teaching at Da Vinci for four years. A layoff list is based on seniority and he's on it.

Mr. BOONCHOUY: I got a baby on the way in two months and I may not have job next year, so that reality is there inside, but I don't try to let the students see that.

KEITH: Like many teachers staring at pink slips, Boonchouy says he's probably going to have to start looking elsewhere for work. That's a dilemma facing teachers all over California who don't know whether a budget compromise in Sacramento will allow them to return to their classrooms in the fall.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Davis.

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