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The Price of Budget Cuts for Teachers By Sydney Steinberg

Early in the 2018-2019 school year, a panic erupted throughout southern and central Marin due to one communal issue: an eight million dollar deficit in the Tam Union High School District (TUHSD). Although the deficit had been foreseen for several years, it was not brought to the limelight until Dr. Tara Taupier took over as superintendent and brought the matter to the attention of the community and employees. Because it is extremely difficult to save the necessary amount of money, some students and community members feared that impending budget cuts would reduce the quality of education within the TUHSD. Simultaneously, several staff members feared for their jobs.

The TUHSD has a substantial deficit because of factors such as enrollment growth, pension reform, increased water bills and the rising cost of healthcare, which have made it difficult for the district to maintain a balanced budget. Although the TUHSD began the school year with an $8 million deficit, passing the Measure J parcel tax was able to reduce it to $3 million. The remaining deficit will be combated by increasing class sizes, and consequently removing staff throughout the district.

Tara Taupier, the superintendent of the TUHSD, speaking at a recent board meeting.

When he was hired three years ago, Social Studies teacher Taber Watson was unaware of the extent of the budget crisis and its implications on his job. Next year, he is planning on teaching at Drake due to the dissolvement of his full-time job at Redwood.

“When I was hired, I had no idea [about the deficit] and then I heard from a couple people I was working with that [budget cuts] were happening, but I didn’t think too much of it because I figured we’re in Marin and we’re rich. I was wrong,” Watson said.

Watson maintains that a significant amount of staff, especially recent hires, shared this experience.

Next year, students and teachers can expect to see class sizes increase, but the extent of that increase is unclear. According to Lars Christensen, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Facilities and a contributor to next year’s budget reduction plan, class sizes will grow by an average of two or three students, which he claims will not be a significant change for either students or teachers. However, according to Watson, it is possible that some class sizes could jump from 25 students this year to 35 next year in extreme instances.

Although larger class sizes will likely not affect the day-to-day activities of teachers, Watson is concerned that they may have long term effects on teaching style and morale.

“There’s the ripple effects. More grading means some teachers are going to reassess how it is they look at assessments. Maybe that means less essays that they grade, maybe that means more multiple choice tests. If you’re adding more work, people will try to find the most efficient ways to get around it,” Watson said.

Budget cut proposal for the 2019-2020 school year.

Increasing class sizes will allow each campus to require less teachers, the effects of which have already taken place as the district decreased the number of employees by offering a voluntary retirement incentive and laying off staff when necessary.

According to Christensen, because 87 to 89 percent of the TUHSD’s budget goes to paying the salaries and benefits of employees, the only way to reduce the amount of money spent is to limit the number of employees.

“The only way to really save money in a school district is to have less people to employ. That’s a sad but true fact,” Christensen said.

Lars Christensen, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Facilities for the TUHSD, talks with a board member at a recent meeting.

The primary way in which the district has restricted its amount of employees is through a retirement incentive, which if accepted, would allow an employee to be paid 80 percent of their current salary during their first year of retirement.

According to Corbett Elsen, the Chief Financial Officer of the TUHSD, the retirement incentive heavily decreased the amount of employees within the TUHSD, which will save the district money immediately.

“The whole point of that is to minimize the teachers who were laid off, forced to leave. By offering a voluntary retirement incentive, more people choose to leave, therefore reducing the number of people we have to force to leave––which we don’t want to do,” Elsen said.

Christensen claims that the retirement incentive has effectively accomplished the goal of saving money by reducing the number of staff while also limiting the number of layoffs.

“It has been very effective, both on the certificate and classified side. A total of 43 people are retiring via Public Agency Retirement Services (PARS) ... That doesn’t mean we’ll have a total of 43 less people, but the people who are coming back will be, quite frankly, less expensive than the ones who are retiring out,” Christensen said.

Although the retirement incentive has encouraged many veteran teachers to retire, there will be no change in the quality of education, according to Elsen, as it is only speeding up a natural process.

“When you look at the names on the retirement list, it is a group of all-star teachers who have dedicated their lives to teaching. We’re going to miss them, there’s no doubt about it … but every year that’s the case, this is just a bigger year,” Elsen said.

Corbett Elsen, the Chief Financial Officer of the TUHSD.

Another way in which the district has reduced its employees is through layoffs.

When deciding which staff to lay off, the district looked at the distribution of teachers throughout subject areas and seniority.

“It depends on how many people we have in certain credential areas … we determine based on student need, elective choice and how many teachers to have in each subject area. Once we decide that, we go by seniority, and typically the last person to be hired is the first person to be laid off,” Christensen said.

Although the district originally notified 19 teachers that they would no longer have a job next school year, because of the success of the retirement incentive, only three certified teachers and several classified staff members were ultimately asked to leave the district. Since then, one full-time teacher has been offered their job back.

For Redwood Principal David Sondheim, reducing the teaching staff has not been an easy task emotionally.

“The hardest thing is having staff that you value not be able to come back next year because you care about the people you’ve worked with and about the people who’ve worked so hard here,” Sondheim said.

Christensen stated that although layoffs are necessary, they have not been an easy task for the district.

“We take absolutely no pleasure in layoffs. I mean none because you end up losing great people… It’s really difficult to lay these people off because we like to think we hire the best people, so when we’re letting the best people go, that has an impact,” Christensen said.

For Redwood Principal, David Sondheim, laying off staff has not been an easy task emotionally.

Although next year’s budget cuts will reduce the majority of the deficit, the TUHSD will further need to reduce spending in the future. Going into next year, Elsen expects 2.84 of the 3 million dollar deficit to be reduced due to the proposed plan for budget cuts. The remaining $160,000 will be eliminated by smaller cuts over a period of time.

“There are always surprises, good and bad, but there will be some things that have a negative impact on our budget,” Elsen said. “We’ll see where things stand in June. We predict we’ll be slightly in the red, nowhere close to seven, eight or nine million dollars, then we’ll have to see what adjustments we’ll have to do moving forward.”

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Sydney Steinberg
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