Pink slips a dark turning point for Fresno Unified

When Fresno Unified School District officials decided last week to issue pink slips to 257 tenured teachers, it marked a day of reckoning for the district.

In making deep cuts that many other districts have managed to avoid or tackled earlier, Fresno Unified trustees said they had few options in plugging a potential $71 million budget hole.

They had to meet the state-mandated March 15 deadline for notifying teachers about potential layoffs, even if later they find a way to avoid or reduce the job cuts.

The notice is required for teachers whose jobs are in jeopardy for the upcoming school year. Districts have until May 15 to finalize or rescind the layoffs.

Unlike Fresno Unified, some districts were spared the difficulty of planning for teacher job cuts.

Clovis, Central, Sanger and Visalia are among the Valley school districts dealing with multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls as the state cuts school funding. But over the past two years, most of these districts made painful cuts that Fresno Unified put off, school experts said.

So Central, Clovis, Sanger and Visalia won't be issuing teacher layoff notices on Tuesday.

Fresno Unified trustees and Superintendent Michael Hanson acknowledged last week that the district is dealing with a painful financial reality many other districts already confronted.

California's larger school districts, including Fresno Unified, postponed big job cuts because they had more financial flexibility -- unlike smaller districts -- said Larry Powell, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools.

Because the state's financial problems have worsened, "now they are having to bite the bullet," he said.

Fresno's layoffs will hinge on whether state legislators agree to schedule a June special election on extending temporary taxes, and whether voters approve the extensions. The temporary taxes are due to expire July 1.

California's education chief is warning districts to prepare for the worst.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said Friday that without a tax extension, the K-12 annual education budget might be cut by another $4.5 billion -- 10% of education spending by the state.

Fresno Unified's financial pain may be deepened by its declining enrollments.

In 2003-04, Fresno Unified had more than 81,000 students. Today, it has about 73,000. And schools are getting less in enrollment-linked average daily attendance funding.

With the state's school funding in limbo, many districts came up with two plans for their 2011-12 school year budgets.

Fresno Unified expected to deal with a $27.3 million shortfall but could be forced to slash $71 million if voters reject the tax extension. The district's general fund budget is $625 million.

The $71 million potential shortfall is what prompted the district to prepare 257 layoff notices. The layoffs would save about $17 million. Another 73 temporary teachers -- who don't require a March 15 notice -- are also on the chopping block, bringing the total number of potential teacher cuts to 330. Another 192 full-time teaching spots that are vacant (mostly due to early retirements) will be eliminated. Fresno Unified has about 4,000 teachers.

The district cut more than 200 teaching jobs last year, but most were probationary or temporary staff. This is the first time many can recall that the district may have to cut so deeply into the permanent teaching ranks to help balance the budget.

Fresno Unified might have been better off financially if the district had staggered layoffs of permanent teachers over the past few years, said Greg Gad- ams, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.

He also said the district is cutting too many classroom teachers and instead should consider more management cuts or removing teachers on special assignment who don't work in the classroom.

But Fresno Unified has been tightening its belt in recent years, trustee Carol Mills said. The district has offered early retirement incentives to longtime, highly paid teachers and is not filling most of the positions. It has increased K-3 class sizes and required all employees to take furlough days. And a districtwide 5% pay cut is under consideration for the upcoming school year, as well as other cuts.

Fresno Unified teachers could have some company in the unemployment line.

Madera Unified already sent layoff notices to 122 temporary and probationary teachers. But district spokesman Jake Bragonier called the notices routine and precautionary "with the goal being that the majority of teachers would return."

In addition, 43 tenured teachers also will be sent layoff notices by Tuesday due to program cuts the district is planning that have nothing to do with the state budget, Bragonier said. "We could be swimming in money and those notices would still go out," he said.

Reductions are being made in programs or elective classes that simply lack student interest or no longer are necessary, he said. The district has about 900 teachers.

Some districts that avoided teacher layoffs this year:

Central Unified has reduced class sizes, implemented furlough days, offered early retirement incentives and buckled down on spending.

Clovis Unified approved $8 million in cuts last week, including a 2% pay reduction for all employees. District trustees also approved a plan to eliminate 27 of 112 vice principal, learning director and counselor jobs. Those employees are being reassigned as classroom teachers.

Visalia Unified is using one-time federal stimulus money and $9 million of reserves to avoid layoffs, said Christine Statton, the district's chief financial officer.

Sanger Unified administrators and teachers will take seven furlough days and the district's nonteaching staff will have five furlough days and take a 0.32% pay cut, said Rich Smith, associate superintendent.