K-12 Support Staff Hit by School Workforce Cuts

Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

But employment losses in state and local education are still coming into focus.

There are signs that cuts to K-12 education jobs are more heavily falling on staff like bus drivers, teacher aides and custodians, as opposed to teachers, as the coronavirus stresses public budgets and as legions of students across the U.S. attend classes online at home. 

But experts caution it is still difficult to get a clear picture of what’s been happening with the mix of furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes in the sector during recent months. This is partly due to limitations with education employment data, but also because thousands of school districts around the country are making local hiring and staffing decisions based on uncertain financial outlooks, shifting conditions with the virus and fluctuations in student enrollment levels.

“I’m not sure there are trends yet,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University and director of the Edunomics Lab, which focuses on education finance issues. “It’s still coming into focus,” she added. “In part because there is no playbook for this moment. District leaders are kind of making their decisions on the fly.”

Labor Department figures show education employment shrank by 280,000 jobs in September. If it turns out that support staff were indeed the bulk of people who have lost their jobs or had hours cut, it would follow the pattern of the broader economy, where surveys find that lower income people are most likely to report being out of work.

Roza pointed out 280,000 jobs amounts to a reduction of just under 3% of the nation’s total state and local education labor force. The rate of attrition for teachers, meaning those leaving the field, was about 8% in years prior to the pandemic. So, overall at least, education hiring could still be taking place, just at a slower pace than before. 

“We’ve seen places that have trimmed their ranks in K-12,” Roza said. “There are some layoffs out there.” But she added: “We haven’t seen deep or widespread layoffs.” She also noted that furloughs haven’t been uncommon and that a typical first step for school districts seeking to curb labor costs is to implement a hiring freeze, leaving unfilled positions empty.

The Edunomics Lab has assembled a database that includes about 365 school districts that have taken actions like furloughing or laying off staff, trimming budgets or reducing salaries in response to the budget pressures and other upheaval that the virus has caused. 

One of those districts is Washington state’s South Kitsap School District, which has about 1,450 employees and 8,700 students and serves an area to the west of Seattle, across Puget Sound. Staffing decisions there give some sense of what the school workforce cuts can look like.

South Kitsap has not laid off any staff during the pandemic. But the district has furloughed a total of 230 positions either partially or fully, Amy Miller, a spokesperson for the district said by email. Of those workers, 140 remained furloughed as of Oct. 8.

Miller said that the originally furloughed group included employees like bus drivers, office assistants, lunchroom and playground supervisors, custodians, the computer lab coordinator, the administrative assistant for athletics, receptionists, security officers and bookkeepers.

“Since the original furlough, many staff have returned to work in some capacity,” she said. But the district started the school year with all students in remote learning mode. And as Miller explained it, many of the furloughed employees, while highly valued, have job duties that can be difficult to carry out when kids are not coming into schools. 

Charlotte Shindler is president of Service Employees International Union Local 1948/Public School Employees of Washington, which represents about 30,000 workers—including custodians, nurses, teachers aides, and bus drivers—at Washington public schools and state universities. While emphasizing that the numbers were approximate, she said as of last week about 1,000 of the union’s members had been furloughed, and about 200 had been laid off.

“This is a very small fraction of our membership,” she said. “But for those people it’s huge.”

Shindler said the majority of the cuts involved transportation-related jobs, as fewer bus drivers are needed with kids learning from home. Para-educators, or teachers assistants, have also been affected, she said, but there have been less than 500 of them furloughed or laid off. 

Furloughed workers are able to keep their health insurance and the expectation generally is schools will bring them back on at some point. Some workers remain “underemployed,” meaning they may only be working, and getting paid for, a fraction of their normal hours. Only about 10 of the job losses were in higher education, Shindler said. 

Public universities, she said, have reassigned workers to projects like dormitory upgrades that can be more easily completed with fewer students around. “They’re being creative as to ways to keep some of these people employed,” she said. At the K-12 level, too, she said, staff have reimagined jobs, with para-educators holding one-on-one Zoom video sessions with students, or talking to parents by phone, for instance. “The districts are being extremely accommodating.”

Shindler noted that a coalition of unions successfully lobbied Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to rework a state formula so funding for busing could go to pay drivers delivering learning materials, meals and computer equipment to students, instead of just those drivers ferrying children to schools.

Robbie Bellamy, a senior policy analyst with SEIU, said union locals with members in two larger school districts, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and the Los Angeles Unified School District, had so far had luck negotiating alternative work assignments for employees whose normal duties had been disrupted by the virus.

“A lot of jobs were basically repurposed, which was good, at those two locals,” he said.

The American Federation of Teachers declined to make anyone available for an on-the-record comment, but characterized the education job losses as already worse than the 2008-era Great Recession and added that there is no clear path to stronger job growth, or recovering lost jobs, in the sector until the virus is under control, or more federal relief funding flows.

School meal programs have also been feeling the pinch. 

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a professional group for school meal program employees, said the group does not have data to know how widespread layoffs and furloughs have been in the field. But she said that school meal programs have struggled with strained budgets in recent months. “We saw a very large decline in meal participation and revenue as a result of the school closures,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now extending waivers through next June to provide kids with broader access to free breakfasts and lunches. This is significant for school food service departments, which cover a large portion of their operating expenses with money from federal reimbursements through national free and low-price meal programs for students.

The extended federal program means not only that more students will have a way to get free meals if they need them in the months ahead, it could also serve as a financial lifeline for school nutrition programs that will receive federal reimbursements for meals served. 

“We’re hearing that that is relieving some of the financial pressure,” Pratt-Heavner said. She added that many school meal programs have burned through reserve funds and were heading into the school year with weakened finances. If meal participation continued to fall, she said, some programs were indicating that they’d have to consider furloughs and layoffs.

In Florida, Santa Rosa District Schools in August confirmed that it would let go of 80 teachers. But the district later changed course and lowered that number to around 25 to accommodate students who opted for remote learning. By last week, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said that all the teachers who originally had been cut were offered to return to teaching.

Wyrosdick described how the state framework for funding schools in Florida can make hiring decisions difficult, especially at a time when enrollment is in flux. 

It’s a somewhat complicated system. But, in a nutshell, state funding is based on the number and needs of students in a district, and a ratio of teachers that aligns with it. A school district that overestimates how many students it will have in the upcoming academic year and over-hires teachers as a result, runs the risk of coming up short with state funds to cover its costs.

This year, however, the usual assumptions about enrollment and staff needs were thrown off by the virus, which has Santa Rosa District Schools offering brick-and-mortar, “virtual” and remote learning. Even now, the district can’t account for about 2,500 of its roughly 29,500 students, who aren’t showing up in the attendance for any of the district’s instructional options.

It’s possible that some parents are homeschooling their kids this year, or that some decided to hold back kindergarteners for another year.

At the time the district decided to cut teachers, Wyrosdick said officials looked at the number of teachers versus expected students and “we realized we were way overstaffed and we had to reduce the number of teachers,” he explained. But this calculus changed when the board offered a remote learning option that drew back in more students.

Wyrosdick said his hope looking ahead is that the state will decide that districts will be “held harmless” and not see their funding from the state reduced if they overestimate their needs with teaching staff, given all of the uncertainty around enrollment. 

“This year is once in 100 years,” he said.

“Florida has said very clearly that they have enough reserves to finance us through this difficult time. And I hope they use those reserves to hold us harmless,” Wyrosdick added. He said if districts do face sharp revenue losses, some could “fall into insolvency.”

So far, Santa Rosa District Schools has not laid off support or maintenance workers. But Wyrosdick, who plans to leave his position next month, said it's possible there could be reductions after enrollment numbers are updated next year. “You have fewer students,” he said, “you need fewer of those support people.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Upgrading aging, underfunded water infrastructure in rural county
Mariposa, CA 95338, USA
MN Water District and High School Collaborate on Stormwater and Education
Forest Lake, MN, USA
New Parking Plaza Adds Capacity & Embraces Sustainability at San Diego Airport
San Diego, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: Marijuana Companies Seek Disaster Relief

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.