Saturday, June 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
- Outstanding rookie teachers honored at School Board meeting (5-10-2012)
- How the School District averted an even worse layoff scenario last year (5-16-2012)
- Balancing a $2 billion checkbook (5-16-2012)
- School District to lay off 1,015 teachers, literacy specialists (5-16-2012)
- Unruly teachers union members cause a scene but can’t deter layoff vote (5-16-2012)
- Frustrated families protest school budget cuts, teacher layoffs (05-07-2012)
- With arbitration ruling, teachers union wins battle but comes out a loser (05-04-2012)
Judith Alfaro wipes her dry-erase board clean and begins taking down the posters in her classroom.
It’s the last full day of the school year and the first-grade teacher at Sewell Elementary School doesn’t know if she’ll be decorating her classroom again in the fall.
That’s because Alfaro is among the 266 “first-year” teachers in the Clark County School District who are facing seniority-based layoffs because of budget cuts.
Alfaro, however, isn’t just a rookie teacher. She is one of seven teachers recognized last month by the School District for being an outstanding New Teacher of the Year.
To receive that award, Alfaro — like many teachers across the district — went above and beyond her job description, volunteering her time before and after school to help her students succeed. The 28-year-old teacher helped organize and run Sewell’s after-school tutoring sessions.
“It’s kind of sad to lose my job after being recognized,” Alfaro says, sighing. “Teaching is what I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t want to do anything else.”
Last month, the School District approved a final budget that bridged a $64 million deficit with as many as 1,000 teacher layoffs. Pink slips are expected to go out next week.
District officials contend they are forced to lay off hundreds of teachers because of an arbitration decision last month that forced the School District to continue paying salary step and education increases to its teachers, per its contract with the teachers union. Officials warned as early as November that the cash-strapped district could not avert teacher layoffs if the union did not agree to concessions.
All school year, hundreds of recently hired teachers weren't sure if they would have a job next year.
“Unfortunately, we had to live with that uncertainty,” said Sewell Principal Carrie Buck, who counts four new teachers among her 45-member staff at Sewell, a four-star school. “That’s the unsettling thing: You don’t know what’s happening.”
The Legislature enacted a law last year that was supposed to end the practice of basing teacher layoffs on seniority. The law mandated that teachers who received bad evaluations would be laid off first.
However, the School District has only 38 teachers who demonstrated poor performance. The majority of the expected 1,000 layoffs will fall on new teachers. (It is unknown yet how vacancies, retirements and resignations will affect the final layoff number.)
More than 837 licensed employees were new to the district this school year, according to chief Human Resources Officer Staci Vesneske. These new employees include teachers, psychologists and counselors.
When a new teacher is hired, he or she is given a “seniority number” among the more than 18,000 teachers in the district.
Of those 837 new employees in the district, 266 are first-year teachers who will be the first to be let go during a “reduction in force.”
“Certainly, we still hope we will be able to resolve something with the (teachers) association, but this is what we’re looking at right now,” Vesneske said regarding the expected layoffs.
Alfaro’s “seniority number” is about 600 from the bottom of the list, she said. If there are more than 600 pink slips issued next year, count Alfaro among the ranks of the unemployed, she said.
“You work hard, finally get the job and get superexcited, and then this,” Alfaro said, talking on Wednesday about the impending layoffs. “I don’t want to leave this school. I love my school, my children, my colleagues.”
The loss of new teachers is unfortunate, Buck said. That’s because these younger employees often bring new ideas that “rejuvenate” a school, she said.
“It’s very unsettling when (teachers) become a number on a list,” Buck said. “They might be a number to the bureaucracy, but to us, they’re such an asset. They have so much to give to our students.
“All four of my new teachers go above and beyond. They constantly give 100 percent. They give their heart to this school.”
Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said he also lamented the idea of teachers losing their jobs. He stuck to the union’s oft-repeated stance that the district doesn’t need to lay off teachers.
“Any teacher being laid off is not what we want,” he said. “We don’t think any teachers have to be laid off.
“Any teacher who is laid off is a loss to children, whether they are a veteran or new teacher. Veteran teachers bring a wealth of knowledge. New teachers bring enthusiasm. It’s a good mix.”
All the first-year teachers at Sewell aren’t exactly “newbies,” Buck said. For example, Alfaro was a long-term substitute teacher, filling vacancies across the district for six years before being hired for the 2011-12 school year at Sewell.
Despite the ongoing contract battle, Buck said her Henderson elementary school was able to maintain a stable learning environment for her students, many of whom come from low-income families.
“We’re like a family at Sewell,” she said. “Morale was hit hard, but we tried to do the best we could.”
What worries Buck just as much as losing teachers next year is how the layoffs will impact Sewell’s student-to-teacher ratio. District officials have said class sizes may jump by three students next year.
That means Alfaro’s first-grade class, which started out with 29 students this year, may have more than 30 students in the fall.
With fewer teachers and more students, some children are going to be left behind, Alfaro said.
“I can’t get kids ‘Ready by Exit’ when there are so many kids in a class,” Alfaro said, referencing the School District’s renewed focus on graduation. “It becomes very difficult to teach.”
Jill Plourde shared Alfaro’s concerns about class sizes. Plourde’s 7-year-old son Cooper was in Alfaro’s class this year.
“If (class sizes) go up any more, I don’t think teachers can handle all of the students,” Plourde said after a recent award ceremony honoring Sewell student accomplishments this year.
“I would be really upset if Mrs. Alfaro is laid off,” Plourde continued. “She’s a great teacher who really cares about her students.”
On the other side of Sewell’s campus — on a dusty patch of land on Lake Mead Drive — fifth-grade teacher Edward Savarese Jr. already has cleaned out his classroom for the summer.
The first-year teacher is leaving behind one item, however: a tall red and gold trophy.
Two years ago, Savarese started an after-school archery club at Sewell. That year, his team of 15 young archers came in second place at the state tournament.
“I’ll miss this,” Savarese said, gazing longingly at the trophy. “I’ll miss the kids. I’ve watched them grow up.”
Savarese became a teacher four years ago because he was a special education student whose third-grade teacher believed in him, he said. Barbara Morris taught the now 34-year-old Savarese about organization and gave him the confidence to succeed.
Savarese — who has a form of dyslexia — went on to graduate from college and receive his master’s degree.
“She changed my life,” Savarese said, reminiscing inside his empty classroom. “I want to do the same for these kids. I want to teach.”
However, Savarese’s “seniority number” is 537 from the bottom. He was pretty critical of the union, saying that he believes the union is protecting mediocrity by arguing for seniority. Although Savarese has four years of teaching experience, the former substitute teacher was just hired in August — which means he has a “good chance” of being laid off, he said.
In anticipation of that dreaded pink slip, Savarese is moving to a smaller apartment. He and his wife are also postponing plans to start a family.
“If I don’t have a job and medical insurance, we can’t have a baby,” Savarese said.
Furthermore, Savarese has about $50,000 in student loan debt he is paying off for his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and master’s degree in education.
“I’ll be paying off a loan for 10 years for a job I’ve had for just one (year),” he said. “It’s terrifying. I don’t know if I should start selling things, sending applications or move to another state.”
Like Alfaro, Savarese was recognized last month for being a New Teacher of the Year. Yet, that accolade doesn’t ease the constant fear of losing his job as a new teacher in the district, Savarese said.
“The irony of it is outstanding,” Savarese said, his voice rising. “I’m the one being punished for going above and beyond. Meanwhile, there are some veteran teachers who are comfortable and happy doing just the minimum. Why are they safe when I’m not?”