SAN JOSE, Calif. – In a spring rite that has become as predictable as cherry blossoms in the nation's capital, public school employees throughout California warned of wrenching classroom cuts as local officials faced a deadline for issuing layoff notices to educators.
The state Department of Education estimates that preliminary pink slips will have been handed to 26,500 teachers by the Sunday cutoff — two-and-a-half times as many as were issued last year. Another 15,000 bus drivers, janitors, secretaries and administrators also were expected to receive the written warnings, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.
Because of the state's less-than-rosy economic outlook, California's 1,000 K-12 school districts have been instructed to absorb more than $8 billion in funding cuts over the next year. To draw attention to the situation, teachers and parents wore pink clothes and waved pink protest signs for a day California's largest teachers' union dubbed "Pink Friday."
Rosemarie Ochoa, a fifth-grade teacher who's in her third year with the San Lorenzo Unified School District, said she was pulled out of class Monday by a district official bearing a pink slip.
"I smiled at her because I knew what she was there for," said Ochoa, 28, who was among 76 of the district's 640 teachers who got a notice this week. "Then I had to go back to my students and retain my composure."
But in another annual ritual, many, if not most, of the early layoff notices could end up being withdrawn by June, especially if the state can devote some of its federal stimulus money to education, officials said.
Six years ago, for example, all but 3,000 of the 20,000 teacher pink slips that went out statewide were rescinded.
O'Connell, who donned a pink tie for an appearance at Gianola's school Friday, allowed that tens of thousands of teachers were unlikely to be let go, but said that with so huge a budget gap to fill, schools would probably increase class sizes, reduce library hours and lose counselors.
Ochoa said officials in San Lorenzo, a working class suburb 15 miles east of San Francisco, told her that some of the cuts probably would be permanent as the district planned to increase primary grade class sizes to save money.
Another unknown is whether the state's financial picture will worsen in the months ahead. If voters do not approve the spending package that will be the subject of a special election in May, schools would have to cut even more deeply and be unable to avert mass layoffs, he said.
"The cuts we are experiencing in public education are debilitating. These cuts have real consequences for real students," he said.
O'Connell, a Democrat who is considering a run for governor next year, said the dispiriting cycle would continue until state officials find a long-term and reliable way to pay for schools.
W. Norton Grubb, the director of a principal training program at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of "The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity," agrees that years of uncertainty take their toll on schools even when layoffs do not come to pass.
"What is happening in these schools when the pink slips go out is everything stops, everyone is discouraged, everyone is busy worrying whether the money will come through, and all the efforts to get schools going basically grinds to a halt and remains ground to a halt for the rest of the spring," Grubb said. "A state that has these kind of crises year after year is really doing a poor job of planning."
Teachers, students and parents at Alhambra High School, located in the eastern Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, were familiar with the Pink Friday routine from previous years. Some parents dropping off their children at school had pink paper taped to their car windows or honked to show their support for the 40 teachers who stood outside in pink wigs, bows and T-shirts.
Justin Li, a 17-year-old senior, photographed the protest for the school paper. The effects of the budget cuts have been noticeable, he said.
"We are seeing teachers being laid off year after year and we want to do something, because all the good teachers are leaving and more and more classes are being cut," Li said. "Teachers work too hard to lose their jobs."
The Alhambra district has seen a $6-million budget cut this school year and 38 teachers have received layoff notices, said Rosalyn Collier, vice president of the Alhambra Teachers Association.
"The cuts have left no wiggle room in the master schedule for the fall. Every class will be at 36 students and no less," said Kathleen Tar, an English teacher for 33 years. "So, if we have honors classes that do not meet 36, those classes will go away."
This week was the third time Steve Chambers, 47, a 5th-grade teacher at Allen At Steinbeck K-8 School in San Jose, has gotten a pink slip, but this is the first time that he has been truly worried. The economy is so bad everywhere, he has little confidence he would be able to get a teaching job elsewhere.
"It's irritating, the fact that I am an eight-year veteran and I could be out of a job for a year," said Chambers, who brought his class to listen to O'Connell's remarks.
Besides Chambers, Principal Nico Flores gave pink slips to four other teachers, one of his vice principals and a counselor. Flores said San Jose is better off than many school districts because it had a spending freeze and large reserve fund in place, but the topsy-turvy budget situation for schools makes him nervous.
"It's like crying wolf, crying wolf, and then suddenly the wolf is really coming and no one is listening," he said.