School Layoffs in a Down Economy

By Lawrence Hardy

Education Secretary Arne Duncan used blunt language to describe the struggling economy’s potential impact on the nation’s schools. With words like “catastrophe” and phrases like “an absolute disaster,” he predicted a dire future for K-12 schools and colleges if the federal stimulus package did not pass.

“The status quo is not good enough,” Duncan said in an interview that appeared in the April issue of ASBJ. “But we absolutely couldn’t get worse at this point.”

Duncan’s point—that the nation’s schools would be devastated by the layoff of counselors, librarians, social workers, teachers, and other support staff—was taken to heart when Congress agreed to spend $115 billion on K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and early childhood programs. But school finance experts and local officials agree that Washington can’t fill all the budget gaps in the hardest-hit school districts.

There will still be layoffs, and in some places, these layoffs will be significant.

Tale of two districts
For Charles Phibbs, finance director for Virginia’s Staunton City Schools, it’s a simple case of math.
“When 82 percent of your budget is consumed by people—let’s face it, we’re in the people business—we know the only way to come up with these cuts is in loss of personnel,” Phibbs says.

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