Some New Jersey school districts laying off educators as possible teacher shortage looms

05/27/2021

Politico

Desks are arranged in a classroom at Panther Valley Elementary School, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Nesquehoning, Pa. 

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Many states are churning out innovative policies in response to a worsening teacher shortage that could reach a full-blown crisis next fall, but in New Jersey, several districts are laying educators off by the dozens.

Non-renewal notices have gone out to at least 14 elementary school teachers — including a Teacher of the Year recipient — in Union Township, 11 educators in Glen Rock (though that number has been disputed by the Board of Education), 36 staff members in Lakewood and 70 staffers in Toms River. Librarians are also reporting firings, with one district eliminating the position of school library media specialist for all of its schools.

“At a time when our children need their teachers the most and after a year unlike any other, it is disappointing that our teachers, students and community have had to deal with this,” Jeff Monge, a Union Township parent and founder of the advocacy group Township of Union Parents for Change, wrote on Facebook of the non-renewals in his town.

The reasons for the layoffs vary by district. Union Township is facing a budget hole and rising teacher health benefit costs, while Toms River will be losing $8 million in state aid because of an ongoing redistribution of funding under S2. Officials in Glen Rock and Lakewood officials have not offered reasons for the cutbacks.

Monge said in an interview the losses in Union Township are especially egregious because Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Chapter 78 teacher health benefit reforms into law at Union High School. The reforms — the result of a deal between the powerful New Jersey Education Association teachers union, the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney — were heralded as potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings for the state budget. But it’s these same reforms, Monge alleged, that led the district to issue layoff notices to educators this month.

Across the country, school districts are trying to entice educators — exhausted and burnt out from remote teaching during the pandemic — to spend their summers staffing catch-up programs and summer school classes. Fearing a massive teacher shortage in the fall, state legislatures and governors are creating policies to call back retired teachers, speed up certification processes for student educators and offering other incentives.

Arkansas is offering thousands of dollars in grants and student loan forgiveness. Colorado lawmakers want to spend $13 million to recruit future teachers starting in middle school and make it easier for mid-career professionals to switch to teaching. Washington, D.C.-area districts are offering teachers double pay and $1,000 bonuses. New Jersey enacted a new law, NJ S2831 (20R), that would allow teachers to gain certification if they hold equivalent credentials from other states.

During the height of the pandemic, teachers in New Jersey were declining to return to their classrooms for in-person learning, citing personal health concerns, inadequate ventilation in school buildings, and fears for the health of their friends and family members who may be immunocompromised. With vaccinations and Murphy's mandate that remote learning not be an option this fall, it's unclear whether teachers will return en masse or if schools could face a shortage come September.

The state Department of Education has not released any data indicating a looming teacher shortage and the NJEA is still collecting its own data, although the Principals and Supervisors Association has said staffing has been among the most pressing issues this past year and districts are locked in a "bidding war" for substitutes.

Still, as New Jersey lawmakers work to pass legislation that would both increase and diversify the teacher pipeline, local school boards are cutting staff just as Murphy announced all schools will have to be open for full-time, in-person learning this fall.

“This action defies logic since Lakewood’s schools have been short-staffed since before the pandemic,” the Lakewood Education Association teachers union said in a statement about the layoffs. “After keeping Lakewood’s schools open through a pandemic at the risk of their own personal safety, these teachers are being kicked to the curb.”

According to the union, the district on May 7 non-renewed 36 staff members, including 29 teachers, six paraprofessionals and one secretary. The district also allegedly transferred 18 staff members, which the union claims were involuntary.

New Jersey school districts are set to receive another $2.5 billion in the latest round of federal rescue funds which may prevent some layoffs. However, election calendars dictate school budgets had to be finalized and put to a public meeting between March and May. The last day for each school board in the state to give non-tenured teachers either a contract or a non-renewal notice was May 15.

According to guidance from the state Department of Education, at least 20 percent of a district’s share of the American Rescue Plan funds must go toward addressing student learning loss, setting up summer programs and after-school enrichment. Any remaining money can go to addressing ventilation and building issues or “hiring new staff and avoiding layoffs.”

It's unclear whether districts will opt to use the money for hiring, as salary and benefit costs compound every year and the federal funds are intended to be a one-shot injection of emergency relief. For those districts that do use the influx in funding for new hires, it's possible more layoffs could come next year when the money runs out.

Ann-Margaret Shannon, president of the Union Township Education Association, said in an email the union “does not support the board of education’s decision” to non-renew the 14 staff members in light of the over $10 million the district is scheduled to get under the ARP.

“The board’s short-sighted refusal to use the ARPA funds in the several different ways which are available to them, is not only fiscally irresponsible but morally so, as well,” Shannon said. “We have been working with interim Superintendent [Gerry] Benaquista to find ways to keep these staff employed, from looking at upcoming retirements and resignations to finding ways to use the federal aid.”

Ronnie McDowell, president of the Union Township Board of Education, refuted the union’s assertion that the non-renewals were the board’s decision. Benaquista drafted a budget that included the layoffs and the board had to approve or reject the budget overall, McDowell said in an interview.

“This was all in the hands of the superintendent,” McDowell said.

The statewide NJEA is urging districts to use their federal funds for hiring and preventing layoffs.

“We need all hands on deck this fall to help students learn and grow after the trauma of the past year,“ Steve Baker, spokesperson for the NJEA, said in an email. “Districts should be using their unprecedented funding to increase the number of professionals available to help students. Layoffs make no sense when there is so much important work to do.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-05-28 03:28:41 -0700