K-12 Support Staff Hit by School Workforce Cuts

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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.

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