Last spring, when Fenton Area Schools handed layoff notices to 15 teachers, the storyline was tragic. Articles about the 15 layoffs, which were really just potential layoffs, included heart-breaking passages.
One described a “teary-eyed” elementary school teacher saying she was “horrified” when she thought of having five or six more students in each class. Another elementary school teacher was quoted as saying she'd have only $41 for school supplies. She was also worried about sending a student across the hall for a band-aid because her class ran out of band-aids and couldn't afford anymore.
Fast forward to the start of the 2011-12 school year. As it turns out, Fenton Area Schools has exactly the same number of teachers, 200, as it had last year. All of those supposedly laid off teachers had been called back.
Multiple stories unmasking teacher layoff articles and headlines that “cried wolf” in the spring have been published recently by Capitol Confidential. But the dynamics involved have been around for years.
The same scenario plays out annually during tough economic times. School districts announce layoffs, usually as a legal precaution to warn teachers of what “could” happen. Then the news media gives its accounts. Generally, it appears that neither the districts nor the news media have incentive to publicly put the possible layoffs in context. From a historical perspective, the vast majority of announced teacher layoffs in Michigan don't materialize.
“It just seems like the system is designed to make for drama,” said Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, a member of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee and a former teacher. “That seems to be the way the system is set up.”
Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, chair of the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said he believes the current system forces school administrators to default toward issuing more, rather than fewer, layoff notices.
“If I was an administrator and I knew the district would be on the hook financially for any teacher laid-off without notice, I'd sure as heck send them a notice, just in case,” Rogers said.
“It's just the way the system seems to work,” Rogers added. “You get the layoff announcements, then a lot of yelling and finger pointing. A while later you find out that they're bringing them (the teachers) back, and in some cases even hiring a few more. Then you think, 'There should be another way to do it.'"
Doug Busch, director of finance and personnel for Fenton Area Schools, confirmed that there tends to be a repeated process of layoff notices taking place and then teachers being called back a few weeks later.
“If there could be layoffs, we always want to give our teachers as much notice as possible in the spring,” Busch said. “By late August we have a better idea of what the budget picture actually looks like. So when we get to August and September, they're (the teachers) usually called back.”
Who calls the news media in to cover the spring layoff stories?
“Typically, in our case, the local and regional editors assign the school board meetings to reporters as a regular part of their beats,” Busch said.
Apparently there was no follow-up story when the Fenton teachers were brought back. Why?
“That's something you'd have to ask the local news media,” Busch responded.
The news group that published the initial story on the Fenton layoffs doesn't comment in such cases. However, it did direct the question to Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden.
Graden pointed out that teacher layoffs generally take place en masse, which is always likely to attract news media attention. When teachers get called back, it's usually not all at once.
“The way it happens is that usually all of the layoffs are announced on one date,” Graden said. “But when they're hired back it happens more incrementally. I think the last teacher who was called back for us was in June. I'm pretty sure we still have nine that are laid off. I'm not sure how many of those nine are working in other districts, but we haven't called them back. This year our district was hit harder than most.”
Graden said that the current system lends itself to exaggerated layoff estimates.
“We do end up issuing more layoff notices than we'll actually need,” Graden said. “For instance, if we know we'll possibly have to lay-off the 30th person on the list, we'd need to give out 30 notices, even when we actually expect it to only involve 15.”
Do school administrators allow the layoffs to get played up for propaganda purposes?
“We don't do that here,” Graden said. “Really, the way the process works doesn't do anyone any good. We end up with teachers who feel like they're left in limbo. But I think the education reforms moving through the Legislature could make a difference. The bill (House Bill 4627) to end the seniority (so-called Last In First Out) should change the way the layoff notices have to be done. Hopefully it will lead to a lot less angst all the way around.”
HB 4627 was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in July.
Teacher layoff and employment statistics for 2011-12 and 2010-11 used in this article are from data reported to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP) under the Freedom Of Information Act.
MCPP has made FOIA requests for layoff and employment figures to all of Michigan's school districts. So far, roughly 85 percent of the districts have complied. The current running tally has overall layoffs statewide tracking slightly above (0.2 percent) the state's overall decline in students.
A simple Internet search on the words “teacher layoffs Michigan” brings up story after story about teachers being laid off. About the only online articles written tallying how few of the layoffs were permanent were published by Capitol Confidential.
Other examples of dramatic layoff stories that turned out to be short-lived include:
An online article published in May 2011 claimed that Michigan's education spending cuts jeopardized employment in East Lansing.
Yet, this school year, East Lansing Schools had a net 221 teachers, just one less than last year.
Last April, the Trenton Public Schools announced that 59 teachers would get layoff notices. This coverage included speculation about the effect on class sizes.
By the beginning of this 2011-12 school year, Trenton had hired back 55 of the 59 teachers.