By Jenny Neyman
The appearance of color is generally a welcome herald of spring. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, however, the arrival of the color pink is dreaded, since it usually comes in the form of a euphemistic pink slip handed out to teachers and support staff near the end of the school year.
But this year, the early arrival of green — as in money — meant pink could be associated with flowers again, not layoffs, making the start of school this fall a much rosier experience.
The Joint Legislative Education Funding Task Force, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, met last summer to hammer out changes to education funding in Alaska. The group’s recommendations called for an increase in the base student allocation — the amount a district gets for each student attending its schools — an increase in funding for intensive needs students, and a change to the area cost differential — the rate at which school districts are compensated for the increased costs they face delivering education in rural areas of the state.
Those recommend-ations, plus some, were included in Gov. Sarah Palin’s state budget presented to the Legislature for consideration during its newly shortened 90-day 25th session, from Jan. 15 to April 13, 2008. Palin’s suggested increases to the task force’s recommendations didn’t make it through the Legislature, but a bill containing the nuts and bolts of the task force’s recommendations was passed in early March and signed by Palin by the end of March.
The bill lays out increases to education funding that will be phased in over three years, so not only did districts know early what money they’d be getting for this school year, they already have an idea of what’s to come through fiscal year 2011.
In years past, state education funding often hasn’t been settled until May, leaving the Kenai school district scrambling to figure out how many employees it could afford to bring back, and how many it couldn’t.
“Prior to this legislative cycle we have been in the nth hour of the legislative session. I mean, literally, education would be amongst the last decisions made because it was the hammer,” said Melody Douglas, chief financial officer for Kenai school district.
The school district was left between a rock: telling teachers whether or not they had a job next year; and a hard place: waiting until the Legislature acted on education funding to finalize its budget.
Tim Peterson, director of human resources for KPBSD, said the district is required by statute to tell all tenured teachers whether they will have a job the next school year by March 16, and all nontenured teachers have to be told by the last day of school, generally toward the end of May. Also by statute, if the district offers an employment contract to a certified employee, it has to make good on it.
It’s a tricky situation: Having to give teachers an answer without knowing how much money the district will have, yet not wanting to offer jobs that will have to be paid even if the district doesn’t end up with as much money as it planned on.
Enter “the riff,” as Peterson calls it. The district lays off nontenured teachers to meet the deadline, then rehires as many as possible when funding is secured.
Peterson said the district tries to tell people they’re being “riffed” before the Anchorage job fair in April, so they can look for another job if they don’t want to wait around until June to hear whether theirs will be available.
The district typically hires back about 90 percent of the 30 to 40 people that get riffed, Peterson said. But that doesn’t make it a pleasant situation.
“I’m sure that was incredibly frustrating for young kids,” Peterson said, referring to the recently graduated nontenured teaches who make up the bulk of the riffed. “That’s what the riff would do to us, the nonretention rate.”
Life on the chopping block
“Incredibly frustrating” is putting it mildly for the Cox family.
Tyson and Stephanie Cox, of Soldotna, got into teaching for the same reasons many people do.
“We just both really enjoy teaching,” she said. “… I liked the idea of teaching kids, and I really liked working with kids and in schools. I think that’s how most people get started teaching, you don’t get into it to be rich. You have a love for teaching and working with kids. I think sometimes that can be taken advantage of because they know we’re here for kids. I think there’s a big responsibility put on us, ‘Well, you know, you have to do it for the kids.’”
The couple is from the central peninsula, attended Kenai Peninsula College and the University of Alaska Anchorage, graduated, and in 2001 embarked on what they thought would be long careers with the Kenai school district.
That plan was smashed their first year when Tyson was laid off. He had been a math teacher at Nikiski Elementary School funded out of Title I money — federal funds given to schools based on the number of low-income students they have. Since the money is based on enrollment numbers, which fluctuate every year, his position was even more precarious than most.
“He got cut and it was both our first year teaching,” Stephanie said. “We were like, ‘We can’t start a family like this, not knowing every single year whether we’re going to have a job or not.’”
Tyson gave up teaching and became a journeyman plumber instead.
The next year, Stephanie’s position as art teacher at Kenai Middle School was cut for lack of funding. She started teaching art classes on her own instead.
“I did my private classes thinking, ‘OK then, I won’t work for the district.’ I rolled my retirement into an IRA because I didn’t think I’d go back to the district. I said, ‘No way, I’m not doing that again.’”
It was a rude awakening to the realities of working in education in Alaska.
“I don’t think I understood about it. Going into college you don’t understand at all about how funding works. You don’t understand how it’s tied to individual teacher positions, or the whole game with the Legislature down in Juneau,” Stephanie Cox said.
Veteran teachers explain the funding process to the uninitiated and offer advice and moral support on the riff, usually from their own experience going through it. But just because it’s a communal experience, almost a rite of passage, doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
Teachers are expected to have college degrees and proper certification, as well as complete student teaching where they pay to work for their credits.
“So it’s a very professional career, but yet we’re treated that way — like it’s not quite,” Cox said.
After two years teaching private classes, Cox took a job subbing in the district, which led to a full-time position teaching art at Soldotna High School.
“I liked the idea of the art class over there, teaching ceramics, full time. That’s how I got back into it,” Cox said.
Being out of the district for two years put her back at square one on the road to tenure, meaning it would take three full years of teaching before being eligible. They were uncertain years, since art teacher was a precarious position to have before the education task force readdressed education funding, which resulted in millions of dollars more for KPBSD this school year.
“It was kind of iffy if I was going to have a job. I got my pink slip each year because of lack of funding. … It was like, ‘Well, do I look for a job somewhere else, but yet I want my job, I really like it and I don’t want to leave it.’”
On the first day of school this year, the beginning of her fourth consecutive year teaching, Cox achieved tenure. She and other teachers also received a pass from the riff last spring.
RIP to riff?
“We knew how much money was coming so we were able to move more quickly on bringing back the nontenured certified positions.” Peterson said. “… This is the first year in the six I’ve been here (as HR manager) we did not do the riff.”
Escape from the riff was made possible by the Legislature’s early action on education funding.
“The first part of September of ’07 we were fairly confident we would get the task force recommendation through the legislative cycle because it was a bipartisan representation of the Legislature on that task force,” Douglas said. “Ordinarily we would not have known, if we were following past patterns, until mid-April. So we had from September to April advanced notice. So that allowed us to go to work as an administrative team with building administrators on identifying the needs and how we may use increased funding.”
Those discussions resulted in programmatic staffing, a system that allows similar-sized schools to offer similar opportunities, like extra electives at middle and high schools, more counselors at elementary, middle and high schools, reading specialists in middle schools, interventionists trained to spot and address learning problems at all school levels, and smaller class sizes in fourth through sixth grades and at small schools.
About 40 new positions were added to the district this year, Peterson said. Early funding also meant getting a jump on the hiring process. Tenured teachers got word of their jobs being continued in February, rather than March, and nontenured certified staff found out in April, Peterson said.
Some positions, like those based on grant funding and/or enrollment, were still up in the air over the summer, and some won’t be settled until enrollment numbers are finalized in October. And support staffing is typically a transient population, but by and large staffing was set far earlier than it typically has been, Peterson said.
‘100 percent of everything’
At SoHi, the district’s largest school, early funding made it possible to find teachers for difficult-to-fill positions, like home economics.
“Number one we were able to find a home ec teacher. Number two we were able to find a veteran teacher, and that was huge for our school,” said SoHi Principal Todd Syverson. “We want students to have the opportunities to look at the food industry and tourism and everything else involved in home economics.”
Language arts, foreign language and math also got new faces this year.
“Again, that forward funding allowed us to advertise early and really gave us a huge opportunity to hire some dynamite people to fill the void. And the extra money allowed us to lower class sizes in several subjects, which was critical to us,” Syverson said. “One of the functions of being able to get class sizes lower is to meet at-risk students’ needs. Last year classes were too big. I don’t care if you’re the valedictorian or if school’s hard for you, that’s not a good thing.”
Early funding cuts down on the anxiety surrounding the end of the school year and lets teachers focus on what they should be focusing on — students.
“Our teachers give 100 percent of everything,” Syverson said. “The teaching profession can be quite draining all by itself. When you’re not sure if you’re going to have a job next year, you don’t need that added pressure on people.”
Even veteran teachers not being riffed felt the effects.
“A school is very much like a family,” Syverson said. “… The emotion in the school, it’s hard on a school. It’s hard on teachers, it’s hard on the departments.”
Coming into this school year, the overriding emotion in the building was excitement.
“I think the Kenai Peninsula is feeling pretty good right now with education funding,” Cox said. “It’s a very positive year this year. Usually when we start the beginning of the school year it’s like doom and gloom. … This year I can definitely see a difference, it’s very positive and it starts the school year off good.”