Where’s teacher?

Pub date April 6, 2010

By Brady Welch


Horace Mann Middle School principal Mark Sanchez sounded exhausted when we reached him on March 26. It wasn’t because Horace Mann is such a tough school, although the Mission District campus does have a disproportionate number of at-risk students. And it wasn’t because it was the Friday before spring break, although that might have had something to do with it.

All week Sanchez had been reeling from news that a whopping 10 out of his 20 full-time teachers had been issued pink slips by the San Francisco Unified School District. Including counselors, a vice principal, and other staff, the budget cuts essentially lopped off 24.6 percent of the school’s workforce, an unprecedented blow that speaks volumes about the state of California public education.

“A lot of the kids were wondering if the school was getting shut down,” Sanchez said. And although Horace Mann isn’t closing, with so many axed teachers, it might seem like a new school to many students come August. “If a significant number [of teachers] are moved, we don’t know what we’re in for.”

There is a legend that you will meet the person who will seal your fate long before the final event happens. And in an interesting turn of events, it was Sanchez who, as president of the Board of Education in 2007, hired current SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia. Attempting to close a staggering $113 million budget gap over the next two years, it fell to Garcia on Feb. 23 to send out 645 layoff notices across the district in a list that included 163 administrators, 239 elementary school teachers, 124 high school teachers, and 104 middles school positions. Horace Mann was hit particularly hard because so many of its staff lacked seniority. Final decisions on layoffs will be made next month by the school board.

The first indications of this massive fiscal blood-letting came Jan. 20, when Garcia sent a letter to the entire district on learning of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget. The document was a glaring reminder of how bad things had gotten in Sacramento, and the superintendent wrote candidly of what he saw and what it meant for the district. “These numbers are large, and they will be devastating.”

Aside from the extraordinary blow to personnel, the proposed SFUSD budget will increase class sizes, freeze salaries, cancel summer school except for those who need credits to graduate, and reduce the number of days of classroom instruction to 175 annually, putting the district in conflict with a state law mandating at least 180 days. Given its deep cuts, Sacramento probably won’t enforce the statute.

“The state itself is in such a budget crisis,” Sanchez told us. “And [it’s] refusing to raise taxes. The fix has to be at the state level.”

But that’s been difficult since the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limits property tax increases and gives control of whatever revenue is generated directly to the state. Because all state budgets must pass the Legislature with a two-thirds super-majority vote, a disciplined minority of virulently antitax Republicans block budgets that adequately fund education nearly every time.

Yet now, the bill for that political stalemate is coming due at schools like Horace Mann.

Beyond the numbers and politics, the Guardian wanted to get a closer look at how this regular cycle of cuts and layoffs is affecting teachers and students, so we spoke to a couple of eighth grade English teachers at Horace Mann who described it as dismal.

“I try to put it at the back of my mind, to be honest,” said Matt Borowsk, one of the 10 teachers at Horace Mann who received a pink slip. Borowsk reiterated a common sentiment that all teachers — potentially laid off or not — just want to do their jobs and focus on their classes. “I want to be able to stay and do my work and make improvements. And I want to do what I can for the school community and work with students,” he said. “I’m still in it, and I’m in it for the long run, despite what issues the district has about keeping their teachers.”

Gail Eigl, a teacher at Horace Mann for eight years who is tenured and therefore not at risk of a layoff, concurred. “No one I know who got a pink slip has changed their attitude. People are trying to stay focused on the present and teach.”

It’s an admirable response, and one Eigl understands well. She was laid off after her first year there in 2001. “Six of us got pink slips,” she recalled. “It was terrible.” She went looking for a job in South San Francisco, but in a strange turn of events, SFUSD called and offered her a job at Argonne Elementary in the Richmond District. A year later, she was back where she started at Horace Mann, and until now, she hadn’t really looked back.

“It’s like the school keeps having problems,” she said, an opinion that also hints at SFUSD’s skewed notion of teaching as a stable career path.

Borowski offers a similar story. This year’s pink slip is his second. Last year he received one after teaching only a year in Burlingame, which is how he ended up in San Francisco. Such rampant doling out of pink slips has nothing to do with Borowski’s performance. Rather, it has everything to do with seniority. And because the state is in such a crunch, it’s hard to stay in any school long enough before the budget’s grim reaper comes to collect.

“People who are able to stick through the first five years, they genuinely want to be a good teacher, make seniority, and not have to worry about it,” he said. And “because Horace Mann is a school where new teachers go, because it’s a tough school, then they’re the most vulnerable to layoffs. Which starts this vicious cycle.”

It’s classic Catch-22. Facing such a budget shortfall, how does SFUSD keep teachers who have little or no seniority teaching in the very schools whose litany of needs put those teachers there in the first place? In many ways, these are the most committed and passionate teachers the district has, and they represent for their classes a level of discipline and stability absent in many of their students’ home lives.

Many of Eigl’s students are low-income, speak English as a second language, or both. Some of their parents are deceased, others are undocumented immigrants, and a few are in jail.

“I honor tenure,” she told us. “I know there’s a reason for it. But right now, it doesn’t seem to be working for us.” Eigl brings up the case of a new parent liaison the school received this year, a critically important position that takes time building solid relationships with students’ families. “She got a pink slip too,” Eigl told us, the exasperation evident in her voice.

“I think people are really defeated inside. It’s so frustrating,” she continued. When asked what she meant by that, Eigl became heated. “It’s California! We’re supposed to be the richest economy. We should have money for schools. Why are other states doing so much more? We’re at the bottom. Where’s the money?” She suggested that Horace Mann should be granted special status because of its high-needs student body.

“It’s almost predictable that students who have a lot of unpredictability in their lives will suffer for this,” Sanchez told us. “It will be destabilizing for them. Teachers will get disrupted as well. A lot of what you do in schools has so much to do with outside the classroom, and it takes a lot of time to get acclimated.” At a tough school like Horace Mann, he says, “there’s been a lot of professional development and new programs.”

Borowski stresses the sentiment forcefully. “It’ll be devastating if the pink slips go through. It’ll be a huge mess.”

Both teachers participated in the massive statewide protests against the cuts on March 4. But other than letting Sacramento know how public educators feel, nothing concrete has come out of it. Sanchez suggested that it might be possible to sue the state for violating its statute on the minimum number of school days. Even SFUSD, at the last Board of Education meeting on March 23, didn’t rule out the possibility of suing the state for lack of adequate funding.

Negotiations are ongoing between the district and the United Educators of San Francisco teachers union about final layoffs. Those will be finalized May 15. Meanwhile, teachers at Horace Mann and across the district will continue to do their jobs despite how grim the outlook may be. As Eigl puts it, “It’s like out of a book from a bad future.”