Palo Alto Weekly Online Edition

Publication Date: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

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 water bill.

"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 teachers.

Not anymore.

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 teachers.

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 sentiments.

"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

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Editor's note:
This is the third in a four-part series on how the school budget crisis is affecting various segments of the community.
As the biggest fiscal fiasco to hit education rocks schools across the state, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the surrounding community battle a state property-tax grab and formulate massive reductions to the district's 2003-2004 budget.
At a study session April 29, the district will reveal its plans to reduce the budget by more than $4 million for the 2003-2004 to address anticipated state cuts and a shortfall in revenue.
In the meantime, it is fighting to hold onto more than $23.1 million in property tax funding that Gov. Gray Davis threatens to take away.

First installment
Second installment



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