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Two Thousand Connecticut Teachers Face Layoffs Before Next School Year


April 22, 2010

About 2,000 teaching jobs statewide are set to be eliminated in June as school boards resort to layoffs to cut expenses during difficult budget deliberations.

"This is absolutely the worst I've seen in my tenure," said John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the largest statewide teachers' union. "Even teachers who have lived through earlier rounds of layoffs have not seen anything quite like this."

With their principal funding sources state and local taxes hammered by the recession, school boards have given pink slips to hundreds of teachers as they look to reduce payroll, close schools, eliminate language instruction and, in some cases, consider switching to a four-day school week to make ends meet, superintendents said.

Eliminating so many teaching jobs will almost certainly result in program cuts and slightly larger class sizes in many school systems next year. Connecticut is following a national trend as an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 teaching positions are being considered for elimination.

"These are much tougher years. People are saying this is the worst recession since the Depression, and I think we're seeing the impact of that on education and a number of other areas, as well," said Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

There is some hope, however, in a proposal made last week by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to spend $23 billion to bail out public schools and colleges and avert widespread teacher layoffs.

"It would be welcome news to superintendents in the state and around the country to get a second wave of stimulus money that could provide some stability," said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut Board of Education.

By law, school districts must notify nontenured teachers by April 1 that they will be laid off.

But schools often don't lay off as many teachers as originally planned, depending on final budget approvals.

In Connecticut, one of the hardest-hit communities is Norwich, which has given layoff notices to 71 certified staff members.

One of them is Dave Plotkin, who teaches eighth-grade science at Teachers' Memorial Middle School in Norwich. Plotkin, who has been teaching for four years, said he wasn't surprised to get a layoff notice, but remains optimistic, partly because his science specialty remains in demand.

"We have stayed upbeat about it," he said. "It's always in the back of your mind, but you don't let it affect the way you teach."

Norwich Superintendent Abby I. Dolliver said that she hopes to reduce the number of layoffs before school opens next fall, but that budget constraints have already forced her to propose closing two schools and cutting middle school language instruction and sports to meet her zero-increase budget.

"It's heartbreaking," Dolliver said. "It's just going to look different next year."

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, Senate chairman of the legislature's education committee, said he is concerned about the impact of teacher layoffs.

"The consequence will be increased class size, which is detrimental to the learning process," Gaffey said. "It's unfortunate that we're living in the times we are and are still gripped by the recession very tightly."

Wallingford is cutting 40 positions, including 15 elementary school teachers, which will add two or three more students per class. Danbury will cut 30 teaching jobs on top of many other budget cuts.

"We're reducing and reducing. We're at a tipping point in many ways," said Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella. "Everybody's thinking creatively. It's not what anybody wants to do. It's not like a business where you can shorten your hours."

Most superintendents and school boards are trying to shield students and core subjects from the brunt of the cuts by reducing other areas.

Some have rebid custodian contracts, eliminated late buses, cut sports programs and even proposed cutting the length of the mandated 180-day school year.

"We're just really trying to think: How do we put teachers in classrooms?" Pascarella said. "Can the state really afford 180 days during these economic times? We're just all concerned about the burden on municipalities."

The Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents has even floated the idea of scaling back to a four-day school week to save energy costs, although the group realizes that the idea is a long shot and has its shortcomings, especially in the eyes of working parents.

"The reality is that many parents count on school as a place for their kids to be," said New London Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, a member of the association. "This is not school systems trying to wreak havoc. We, as a state, are trying to come to grips with what people want. You can't keep saying 'no new taxes' and expect the quality of services to improve."

Some teachers' union officials believe that it is too early to project exact numbers of job losses, but they acknowledge that the threatened job and other budget cuts are anxiety-provoking.

"It goes beyond the loss of teaching jobs. It really has affected the tenor of bargaining and creation of budgets," Yrchik said. "It's affected decisions about educational programs and availability of resources. Whether a teacher's job is threatened or not, the economic conditions have filtered through the life of the school."

While schools grapple with the budget crisis, they acknowledge that their real worry is the 2011-12 fiscal year. At that point, Connecticut will lose $271 million in stimulus money that the federal government has pumped into the state in each of the past two years.

"They tell us that the next 18 months is just a little storm we're dealing with. Next year is going to be a tsunami," Pascarella said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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