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See you next year?
Looming budget cuts prompted a round of pink slips in Northern Santa Barbara County schools, worrying teachers at the bottom of the ladder

Date: 04/16/2008

A diploma hangs in Rudy Calderon's classroom at El Camino Junior High School, but it's not from Cal State Bakersfield, where he got his bachelor's degree in history.

No, the diploma extends all the way back to Calderon's junior high days at--yep--El Camino Junior High School.

The 33-year-old shows it to his students, telling them that he started out exactly where they are now: growing up in Santa Maria, speaking Spanish as his first language. Now, Calderon is an English teacher, and his students adore him.

"He's very inspirational for our kids," said Mark Muller, principal at El Camino. "He motivates them. They flock around him."

Muller said that he once walked into Calderon's room during a break to find a young girl finishing writing a poem while others students had their heads in books. Calderon is one of those teachers, the principal said, the kind of educator students remember fondly for years, long after they studied in his classroom.

But right now, this second-year teacher--described as a "superstar" by his principal--isn't entirely happy with his job. Calderon said that he's having a hard time listening to his students talk about their hopes and plans for next year, mainly because he doesn't know if he'll still be teaching.

Hiring and firing:
Joanne Cameron, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said that her favorite part of the job is hiring talented new teachers. Unfortunately, her least favorite part of the job is the exact opposite: having to fire some of those same teachers when the budget gets tight.
It's especially hard when kids on his soccer team--the 70-student-strong squad Calderon formed on campus--start planning for their upcoming season.

"It's hard to be bold and tell them, 'Hey, the club might not exist next year," Calderon said.

Instead, Calderon hasn't said anything. His students don't know that he's one of dozens of temporary teachers in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District who received a pink slip in March. That means he may be hired to teach again for next year. Or maybe not.

The pink slip has nothing to with Calderon's performance and everything to do with his status as a temporary teacher and the statewide budget cuts coming down on educators throughout the state. Still, the news is hard to bear.

"Even though you know it's not you, at a subconscious level it's hard not to feel like you're not good enough," Calderon said. "You can't help but be disheartened."

Throughout the county, more than 100 teachers are living through experiences similar to Calderon's. They've been told to wait and see. Wait and see if their jobs are still there come August. Wait and see if they'll be able to pay their bills. Wait and see if they need to start looking for a job in a different field or outside of Santa Maria.

Thirty-one teachers in the Santa Maria-Bonita District, 29 in the Santa Maria High School District, 29 in the Orcutt Union School District, and 59 in the Lompoc School District could be let go at the end of this school year.

The pink slips are a direct reaction to recent budget cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Citing a $14.5 billion deficit, the governor announced his plan in January to cut an across-the-board 10 percent from almost every General Fund program in the state. California's education funds would account for $4.8 billion of that slashing.

English teacher Rudy Calderon has been described as a "superstar" by his principal at El Camino. He's one of the district's rising stars. He's also one of the teachers who may be laid off because of budget cuts.
The budget isn't official until May--and even then it's subject to revision--but school districts across the state have to finalize their own upcoming budgets before that deadline.

Most of the money in a school district's budget goes to salaries, and that's where the cuts are being made. It's not an entirely new process. Teachers have been given pink slips in past budget crunches, but many have been re-hired anyway.

"This is the third time during my time here that we have had to do this," said Joanne Cameron, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District.

Cameron has held her position with the district for the last 15 years. She hires teachers and, if necessary, fires them, too.

Each of the times in the last half-dozen or so years the district has had to hand out pink slips to teachers, it's also been able to re-organize and bounce back, she said. Most of those teachers got their jobs back.

This time, however, might be different.

"I'm really fearful, because I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," Cameron said.

Temporary teachers like Calderon are hired on a one-year contract. At the end of the year, their contracts are either terminated, or the temporary educators are hired on as probationary teachers. From probationary, the next step up is to permanent status, explained Nancy Iarossi, president of the Santa-Maria Bonita teachers' union.

"In the past, our temps have almost always been hired back," Iarossi said. "But this year, we're all worried."

When budget cuts loom, temporary teachers are the first to go, stalling the system's normal flow. If they're hired on again, they either start all over as temps, or, if they're lucky, are moved up to probationary status.

In the past, teachers received letters to tell them about the budget problem and their tenuous status. This year, Cameron called all of the 75 temporary teachers into a mandatory meeting. She told them that their jobs were at risk and had them sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they got the message.

"I wanted to make sure they knew what was happening, because this is not business as usual," she said.

Understandably, morale is low at local schools, Iarossi said. Some teachers have been pink-slipped two years in a row--including Calderon, who was hired back as a temp last year.

Regardless, all temporary teachers received pink slips this time around, but the district does have some discretion when it comes to who gets hired back if and when spots become available. Cameron said that performance does matter, and she and the rest of the human resources staff will pick the best teachers first.

Calderon said that he hopes the district appreciates him enough to offer him probationary status--if he survives this round of cuts.

"If that happens, fine, I'll move on," he said. "But if this process repeats itself again, I might have to take a hard look at my life and what I want to do in the future."

Will Smith, another El Camino teacher, said that letting teachers go is a strange thing to do given the current climate of education in Santa Maria. Enrollment is growing, class sizes are large, and the district needs more teachers, not less, he said.

"There's a shortage of teachers, but if they don't have the money to pay more teachers, then what are you going to do?" he said.

Smith is a permanent teacher now, but eight years ago, when he first started teaching, he received a pink slip. He still remembers the feeling it gave him.

"It kind of destroys your self-esteem as a teacher," he said. "How do you go in there and motivate kids when you're down and out and don't know if you have a job?"

According to the California Teachers Association, schools in California will need to hire about 200,000 teachers in the next 10 years. Low retention rates, fewer people entering the profession, and the retirement of Baby Boomer-age educators are pointing toward an upcoming teacher shortage.

Cameron said that she worries about retention each time she has to give pink slips to teachers. She worries that they'll get discouraged and leave the profession, while at the same time college students will see what's happening in the education system and decide not to study to become a teacher.

It's something Calderon thinks of when his students tell him that they, too, want to become a teacher.

"I tell them to follow their dreams," he said. "You can't tell them the truth: 'Go study, but you might not get a job.'"

In a somewhat ironic twist, retirees leaving the profession could save the careers of the newer teachers.

The Santa Maria-Bonita district has drafted a retirement incentive to tempt older teachers into retiring this year. Available to teachers 55 years or older, or with 30 years of teaching experience, the retirement package includes an incentive that could add up to $80,000 in extra benefits.

There are 140 teachers in the district eligible for the package. If 35 of those teachers take it, Cameron said that she'd be able to save the jobs of almost every teacher who's been given a pink slip. If no one bites, the worst-case scenario includes about 50 teachers being let go. Potential retirees have until April 30 to decide.

"It's not like they're kicking people out the door because they're old and decrepit," Iarossi said. "They're making it financially attractive."

Cameron is concerned that not many teachers are ready to retire. She said that she expected a better response when she met with teachers to discuss the plan. Retirees are scared, too, she pointed out. They're worried about the economy and the feasibility of living on more of a fixed income.

"I would imagine the teachers will wait till the last minute to decide," Cameron said. "It's hard to sign on that dotted line."

In the meantime, Calderon and other newer teachers have nothing to do but wait. Calderon said he's hopeful that he'll know one way or another when the number of retirees is reported in April. Iarossi predicted that most teachers won't know for sure whether or not they'll be coming back until August.

"It creates a lot of uncertainty," Principal Muller said of the wait. "It doesn't help morale at all."

Muller said that he wants to keep Calderon at El Camino, but unfortunately that's not his decision. Calderon's fate lies with the district.

As a principal, Muller said that he's never lost a teacher because of budget restrictions, though this is the third time teachers at his school have received pink slips.

He doesn't think this will be the last time, either.

"As we're looking at the revenue sources in California, they're not looking very good," he said.

It's definitely a tough time to start out as a teacher. Calderon knows that as well as anyone. In only the second year of what he hoped would be a long career in education, he's already been forced to consider other options.

"It's one of those things where everything is going great, and then a door shuts," he said.

Still, he remains hopeful. Calderon has continued to schedule soccer games for his team. On a recent afternoon, he was already talking about getting outside and prepping his players for their game.

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