Date: Tuesday, April 22,
Lessons in anxiety
Teachers try to face uncertain
future with confidence
by Rachel Metz
When Leigh Cambra
received a pink slip from the Palo Alto school district last
year, it carried about as much weight as her monthly
"I don't remember getting it," said
Cambra, who has taught home economics at Palo Alto High School
for two years.
But in the face of an unparalleled school budget crisis, this
year's routine lay off notice had greater significance for uncredentialed
instructors like Cambra.
"I don't feel secure," she said. "I've
had a lot of people tell me not to be concerned, but there's
also a big part of me that
feels concerned because I don't have a teaching credential."
Cambra's sentiments are indicative of the myriad emotions felt
by district teachers and employees caught in one of the largest
budget crises in the state's history. Districts a year ago aggressively
recruited teachers, oftentimes hiring uncredentialed employees
to fill spots. Back then Cambra didn't worry about losing her job.
There were always other districts ready to hire uncredentialed
The California Teacher's Association recently reported that more
than 10,000 teachers, uncredentialed and credentialed, received
lay off notices March 15 as statewide districts prepared for shrinking
budgets brought on by state budget cuts and a proposal by Gov.
Gray Davis to grab a portion of districts' property tax revenue.
Palo Alto, a district accustomed to hiring about 100 teachers
a year, took a gamble and declined to give anything above its routine
notices despite the fact that 85 percent of its $108 million budget
is personnel. Instead, it will deal with the projected $4 million
budget shortfall through attrition and employee reassignments,
saying it doesn't anticipate letting go of the district's temporary
It's a chance the district has taken to keep teacher morale high.
Still, the district's staff, specifically its 75 temporary teachers,
aren't completely comforted by the move. They have faith in the
district, but can't help but feel insecure.
"I was feeling good ... But since I haven't heard anything in
a while, now I'm starting to feel unsure and I think other people
are starting to feel unsure. When you don't hear news for a while
you don't know if that's good or bad ," said Cambra, a graduate
of Gunn High School.
Every spring the district dishes out "notices of release to temporary
and/or emergency credentialed employees" thanking them for their
service and terminating employees' yearly contracts June 13. Most
of the time, they are hired back. In May, temporary employees will
learn if their posts are secure for the fall.
"Let's put it this way: If I were a first-year teacher this year,
I would be somewhat worried," said Josh Bloom, a science teacher
at Gunn. "But again, the district is trying real hard to keep us
informed and to balance optimism with realism.
"It has to be understood that receiving a pink slip doesn't necessarily
mean you're not going to be hired back," he added. "It's something
the district has to do to cover themselves."
Bloom, who will receive his teaching credential in June, is confident
he will return in the fall despite the budget crisis. His confidence
echoes the belief throughout the district that Davis' plan to snatch
basic-aid revenue won't completely come to fruition.
"It's just totally unprecedented," he said. "If
I believe that the heavier cuts would be going through, I'd be
worried if I'd
be coming back or not.
"My sense is that people do expect that there will be cuts and
it will place some strain on the school and we'll kind of have
to start trimming the fat a little bit," he said. "But it's not
like we're going to have to remove a kidney or something."
Nancy Ayling, a 33-year veteran of the district, seconded Bloom's
"I think there was certainly a level of anxiety in terms of 'What
does that mean?' for the people that I work with," said Ayling,
an English teacher and instructional supervisor at Jordan Middle
School. "In some cases, 'Will I have a job?' And the district was
very good about reassuring people that -- and they communicated
it very clearly -- that they were not going to make the cuts."
Such confidence among teachers was an important part of the district's
strategy to combat the proposed cuts.
"Had we issued these (layoff) notices, it would have been an incredible
disruption in our district (and) lost us teachers who we spent
a lot of money and time selecting, recruiting and training," said
Mandy Lowell, president of the Palo Alto school board.
"Our rationale is we don't think the tax diversion is going to
happen this year. We were betting -- and it's a gamble - (that)
the Legislature and the governor would see the light," she said.
Fifth-grade teacher Kathy Chin is pleased with
the way the district has handled the budget crisis, but worries
about its future. "Well,
if we do lose our basic aid, we have a little cushion this year
from the money they've put away," said Chin, who expects to be
back next year. " ... Who knows what's going to happen next year?" Although
a first-year teacher at El Carmelo Elementary School, Chin has
taught throughout the country for 26 years. From Washington to
Idaho to Utah, Chin saw school districts battling with budget issues
in one form or another.
"It seems like every school district, there's just ups and downs
everywhere," Chin said. "You never see a steady maintenance. In
all these years, I've never seen that."
However, Chin admitted the current crisis is more daunting than
others she has faced.
"I think the state deficit is larger than anything I've ever seen
before. ... It's hard for me to imagine how a state gets itself
in that kind of trouble almost overnight," she said.
Rachel Metz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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