‘Displaced’ teachers a lesser known story of budget decisions

  • Emma Brooks has taught high school and junior high English classes for two years in Anchorage and two years in the Matanuska Susitna School Districts. For the second time, she is being “displaced” due to budget cuts. Dimond High School, her current school, is in line to receive fewer funds due to fewer students. She was notified this means she will have to move to a different school. Instead, she chose to resign and recently testified to Alaska legislators about the displacement problems teachers face. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

The process of laying off teachers in what’s known as “pink slip season” — May 15 to the last day of school — attracts most of the attention when education loyalists argue for funding.

But there’s another category known as “displaced” or involuntarily transferred teachers that also stems from budget cuts. It involves keeping a teacher in the district but putting him or her up for bid to a different school.

Teachers selected to be laid off or displaced are identified by school principals and generally are the latest hired, said Tim Parker, president of the National Education Association–Alaska Chapter. If programs are reduced or eliminated, the teachers, even tenured ones, will also get laid off or displaced.

“Tenured teachers are usually the last ones to be identified for layoffs,” Parker said.

Critics of this system argue that a perfectly great teacher could get lost in the “last hired-first fired” criteria, he acknowledged.

While Alaska’s educators and legislators have debated the matter through the years, Parker said, no system for deciding which teachers deserve higher merit status over other teachers was ever developed.

Many of the state’s teachers belong to the National Education Association bargaining unit, which helped devise the current system.

Emma Brooks, an English teacher at Dimond High School, was notified of her displacement last month. Brooks was raised in Homer and graduated early in an advanced placement program at Homer High School in 2005.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and writing from Southern Oregon University in Ashland and a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Teaching literature to high school students used to be her goal.

“At the end of the school year, displaced teachers will be shuffled around randomly to other schools,” she said. “It’s a process that shows how little value is placed on teachers, for your strengths or letting you pick where you go or adequate time to plan for the school year ahead.”

At a giant meeting of district principals sometime in mid-summer, the teachers’ names and certifications are posted on a board in the Anchorage School District building.

A principal then takes a name down and casts a bid on a teacher by exhibiting the name on a paddle to claim a displaced teacher the school is interested in hiring, Brooks said.

Last year, when displaced from her English teaching position at West High, Brooks’ name was exhibited on the paddle of a Clark Junior High School principal.

“He emailed me a photograph of him holding up the paddle with my name on it,” Brooks said.

There was no interview. He simply offered her a job teaching junior high English.

This method for acquiring teachers occurs in tight budget years, after dozens of pink slips were sent out and student needs shift: more English teachers may be needed, another math certification or a social studies specialist. Teachers will be hired back after being laid-off but in many cases, the teacher has moved on to get a new position in another state.

Brooks turned down Clark’s position and applied to Dimond High School, where she teaches freshman English sections to 75 students and a literacy support course for 13 high-needs students.

Now she is displaced again.

“Even the legislators in Juneau didn’t understand displacement is different from being laid off,” Brooks said. “My own husband confused the difference until I explained it.”

Parker, the president of the National Education Association-Alaska Chapter, said the bid process for acquiring a teacher might pit one principal against another principal who both want the same teacher, so using the term “bid” to describe the process isn’t inaccurate. What kind of bargaining they do to get the credentialed teacher they want, however, isn’t known.

“Two competing principals debate it a little bit,” he said. “I’ve never been allowed in to witness one of these events but I have been one of the displaced before. It would be better to consult the employees about job strengths. We would like if they would go through the process of letting them apply.”

If schools could place an opening soon enough in the school year, “you would get a more natural movement,” Parker said. “In shrinking times we get an artificial, strange process that happens in mid-summer. It’s not in the interest of kids to do this every year.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, school districts didn’t go through this, Parker said, because budgets kept pace with inflation. In times of adequate budgets, districts don’t cycle through layoffs, hiring them back and losing many teachers in the process, he said.

Brooks’ displacement comes as Dimond High officials project enrollment for the 2018-19 school year ahead. The student body of 1,654 this year declined by 50 from 1,704 last year.

Nine teachers will be displaced or laid off from the school — well ahead of the statutory-mandated teacher notification of May 15 for non-tenured teachers and the last day of school for tenured teacher layoffs.

When her impending displacement was announced again this year, Brooks handed in her resignation.

For the first time since taking a teaching job in Alaska four years ago, she felt it would be okay to testify to legislators in Juneau about teachers getting randomly moved to other schools. She volunteered on one of the Alaska Education Association’s Juneau trips.

“I wanted to say something about this. There is a lack of respect for teachers. There’s a sense that teachers feel entitled, but that’s not true. I know what is happening from having been there and I think a lot of legislators didn’t even know this is going on,” she said. “I wanted to communicate how inefficient this whole system is. Even just as an Alaskan, I wanted them to know the system because they (legislators) are so distant from it.”

Brooks likes to write and has published professionally. Mostly, in teaching, she wanted to impart writing and reading skills to teens. Now she isn’t so sure she wants to be a teacher again.

“This isn’t part of the culture I want to be part of; they aren’t professional in how they treat teachers,” she said.

An Institute for Social and Economic Research report concluded it costs $20,000 for each new-teacher hire due to costs of recruiting out of state, mentoring or training, and other factors.

Yet, in the “lack of value” placed on teachers they already hired, Brooks said, the district manufactures some of its own chaos.

“It completely wastes funding,” she said.

As an Alaska-grown teacher, she prioritized getting a job in the state. But she feels the system drives out young new energetic teachers.

“It’s sad beyond just me,” Brooks said. “Our school district activity drives out teachers in this crazy cycle of being laid off or displaced. You can’t develop relationships. You can’t do planning ahead when you don’t know where you will be or what you will teach. It’s harming students.”

Parker agrees. Alaska has a hard time recruiting new teachers due to relatively lower pay, higher costs of living and poor benefits. He would like to see stability in the number of Alaska teachers, rather than the present shortage.

“The retirement system is not adequate. It’s atrocious. It’s a defined contribution system, as opposed to a defined benefit system, that is not good financial planning,” Parker said.

Social Security won’t be available to Alaska’s retired teachers due to opting out of the system.

Scott MacManus, the superintendent of the Alaska Gateway School District headquartered in Tok, testified recently that he attended a teacher job fair in Anchorage.

“There were fewer than 200 applicants, because we’re not competitive anymore,” MacManus said. “Then I attended a job fair in Oregon, and they had 1,600 applicants.”

MacManus could only offer $50,000 a year to any new teacher hires. But in Oregon, teacher salaries are closer to $59,000, he said. “I can’t compete with that.”

Brooks isn’t sure what goals she will pursue now. But she wants to remain part of the dialogue on the state level.

“I am hoping the Legislature will find a way to forward-fund education,” she said. “This is impacting 37 percent of the students in Alaska. That’s how many are in the Anchorage School District. Teachers deserve a lot more lead time than they get.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

04/11/2018 - 12:36pm