Most 'laid off' teachers are recalled
Earlier this year, Michigan Radio Education Reporter Kate Wells wrote a story about how Ann Arbor Public Schools district sending out 233 pink slips to teachers was more evidence of a financial crisis among schools.
In her story, Wells wrote that the district sent out 100 pink slips in 2010, but that "those were false alarms," because all of those pink slips eventually were rescinded.
"This time is different," Wells wrote in May.
However, of the 233 teachers issued pink slips, only one full-time teacher and one part-time teacher actually were laid off, according to the school district.
Wells, who didn't reply to an email seeking comment, is hardly alone when using annual mass layoff notices that some districts issue every year and painting a narrative of a financial crisis.
Reuters News Service used just such mass layoff notices as evidence of a statewide financial crisis in a March 2009 story.
The headline read: "U.S. Schools turn to mass layoffs to ease deficits"
The story highlighted the Pontiac School District and how it had put all of its teachers in 2009 on notice that they were to be laid off.
The story stated: "The move was part of a plan to address declining enrollment, a big contributor to an $11.6 million deficit in the district's $92 million budget."
In the fall of 2008, Pontiac had 460 full-time teachers, which was reduced to 405.6 in 2009, or a reduction of 55 teachers. However, Pontiac's student enrollment dropped significantly during that time. In 2005, the school district had 10,507 students, which fell to 5,785 in 2011. In 2011, the district spent $16,400 per student.
Fewer students meant fewer teachers were needed.
School districts issue mass layoff notices typically because it is required by contract. But news reports often use that information to try to create story lines that do not exist.
In the spring of 2011, for example, MLive did a story with the headline: "All Muskegon schools staff receive layoff notices"
The first paragraph: "Unprecedented times like school districts are now facing are requiring unprecedented budget cuts — and in Muskegon Public Schools' case, that means sending layoff notices to all employees."
The second paragraph noted the "vast majority" would retain their jobs.
Betty Savage, the district's acting superintendent at the time, said, "I would never have thought I'd be laying off people who had 20-plus years, and in a couple cases, teachers with 30-plus years."
In the end, Muskegon laid off 4.5 teaching positions.
In the spring of 2011, Michigan Radio did a story on Monroe issuing layoff notices to all 343 teachers and quoted the district spokesman saying proposed budget cuts could include reductions in the classrooms.
The article noted the district spokesman acknowledged that all the teachers wouldn't be laid off.
They weren't. Monroe laid off 14 teachers, not 343, and called back 2.5 full-time teaching positions later in the fall.
In Chippewa Valley, one local newspaper said the district was "gearing up for what could be massive budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year," and reported that layoff notices to 338 of its teachers were delivered.
Instead, Chippewa Valley increased its teaching staff as it went from 799 teachers when they announced the layoff notices in the spring to 806 teachers in the fall, according to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.
Michigan Capitol Confidential put in FOIA requests to 550-plus school districts asking for the number of layoff notices issued and the number of teachers recalled for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. In the districts that responded, an estimated 75 percent of the teachers who were issued layoff notices in the summer of 2011 were recalled in the fall.
But the number of students decreased during that time period, according to state records.
"These school superintendents are more predictable than Lucy holding a football and the media plays the role of Charlie Brown every year," said Leon Drolet, Chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. "The trick continues to work. It is just laziness on the part of the media."
The media reports often then are picked up by advocacy groups and politicians.
In 2012, State Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, in a letter to a local newspaper said that because of budget cuts school districts cut an estimated 15,000 teacher and other school jobs.
Rep. Townsend was citing a June 2011 "We Are The People" report that 15,000 school employees were laid off. The "We Are The People" website, however, cited early spring layoffs and didn’t track the inevitable recalls. For example, it listed that Brighton issued layoff notices for 50 teachers, but didn't include in its report that 35 of those teachers eventually were recalled.
Politicians aren't the only one using the flawed layoff reports.
For example, the Michigan Education Association used an AnnArbor.com headline that read: “Budget crisis: Ann Arbor schools issues layoff notices for 233 teachers” in a graphic about public school budget cuts. The MEA's graphic said, "the funding drop has also caused massive school employee layoffs in every corner of the state."
But AnnArbor.com did something that most media haven't — it followed up on the inevitable recalls in the fall and found that only two teachers were laid off in Ann Arbor, and only one was a full-time teacher.
The school districts that responded to Michigan Capitol Confidential's FOIA request reported 5,200 teachers received layoff notices, but 3,900 were recalled, meaning just 1,300 teachers were laid off from a workforce numbering more than 71,000. And that was the year of Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget cuts. By comparison, there were 26,100 fewer students, a 2 percent reduction in traditional public schools statewide in 2012-13 than the previous year.
(Editor's note: Some new information has been added to this story since its original posting.)