More Than 170 Local Teacher Positions Axed by District's Budget

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There are mixed emotions among Berkeley school teachers who are being laid off because of district budget cuts.

More than 170 teachers received layoff notices in March. The layoffs are part of the Berkeley Unified School District's efforts to alleviate a $6 million budget shortfall.

Many of the teachers will be attending "stressful" hearings next week to ensure that layoffs were justly based on seniority and credentials, said Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

Despite the upsetting news, teachers remain hopeful some of the notices will be revoked by May 1, Fike said.

The district sent out enough notices to accommodate possible additional budget cuts in the future.

"We're working hard to bring as many of those teachers back as we can," said Superintendent Michele Lawrence.

But the union is urging the Board of Education to reinstate as many positions as soon as possible in order to avoid losing teachers to other districts.

Fike added that every year, an average of 60 to 70 teachers leave voluntarily for personal reasons such as maternity or retirement.

"If this number will be above normal this year, that can help absorb the layoffs," Fike said.

The union also complained that teachers have not been given adequate opportunities to help the district decide which changes would be the least harmful to students.

"We really haven't had a fair opportunity to contribute to these decisions, and some teachers feel that many planned-for changes are not educationally sound or cost-effective," Fike said.

Some of the program changes that concerned the union include the closure of City of Franklin Microsociety elementary school and a reduction of the music programs districtwide.

To save funds, the district also laid off the department heads at Berkeley High School.

This will significantly harm the organization and motivation of teachers, said Magi Discoe, current science department chair. Discoe will now serve as a regular science teacher and be hit with a salary decrease.

"Making educational changes comes from a climate where teachers agree to do their best teaching," she said. "Without a department chair, it's hard to maintain that climate."

The science department at Berkeley High School was the hardest hit, as ten teachers are being laid off because of the elimination of the double-period science program, Discoe said.

School board members have repeatedly insisted at meetings that they have made the best changes possible under the given circumstances.

"Our budget situation is complex, and I feel personally very good about how we're dealing with it, and that there is not a hunt for who to blame," said board president Shirley Issel.

Discoe commended her co-workers on the way they are coping with the situation.

"People in the science department have been incredibly professional," she said. "There's nobody who's not teaching. They're really behaving honorably."

Some teachers speculate the layoffs were intended by the district as retribution for requesting raises three years ago, Fike said.

The district had granted the teachers raises in the form of a four-year contract, which expires at the end of the next fiscal year.

While the federation does not see the layoffs as a direct repercussion of the raises, it disagrees with board members who have implied the raise was partly to blame for the budget shortfall.

"We are below average on teacher salaries, but the district is above average in its revenue, and (the fact that) we're just above the rock bottom instead of at the rock bottom is not a reason to blame the raises," Fike said.

While Issel admitted the raise had "no doubt" compounded the budget shortfall, she also said the raise had been well-deserved and necessary.

"I'm proud to have supported the raise to be given to the teachers," she said.


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