laid-off teachers

Gilbert Public Schools’ declining student enrollment wasn’t a secret but when the district pulled the trigger on layoffs, it came as a shock to many of the 152 teachers who will be let go after the current school year.

The Governing Board last Tuesday unanimously approved the 7.5 percent reduction in certified staff for the 2021-22 school year after hearing a presentation about why the cuts were needed and the criteria used for determining who was being let go. 

The affected teachers were notified March 26 as a courtesy.

 “I was absolutely shocked,” said Angela Philpot, when she learned her contract won’t be renewed. “I had no idea we were looking at a RIF seriously because of all the support we were getting from the federal government.”

RIF is an acronym for “reduction in force.”

  A day after the vote, Philpot, who worked for the district for seven years after being recruited from Apache Junction Unified School District, said GPS was not transparent in its intention to lay off teachers.

“I went through the 2010 RIF at Apache Junction,” said the English-learner teacher and treasurer for the Arizona Education Association. “We knew it was coming. We knew the metrics used. We knew we were getting letters. It was not all of us herded into a room and hearing it for the first time.”

Affected teachers were told March 26 that they had to attend a mandatory meeting after school. They went to the meeting not knowing what to expect and were told by their school principals, who read from a script, that their jobs were no more. The district followed up with an email.

 Philpot said the district sends out weekly newsletters to employees and there was no mention about the possibility of layoffs.

 The loss of students during the pandemic came as the district vacillated between in-person, virtual and hybrid learning. Students left for a charter school, private school or home-schooling. 

GPS’s enrollment this school year fell by 1,644 students to 34,235, according to Bonnie Betz, assistant superintendent of Business Services. The district anticipated an additional loss of 400 students for the 2021-22 academic year, she added.

Most districts in Arizona lost enrollment during the pandemic.

Mesa Public Schools and Chandler Unified also saw big enrollment drops but both recently announced they have no intentions of laying off teachers.

Betz said she did not have access to their financial data and could not say why GPS was more adversely affected.

 In the East Valley, Higley and Queen Creek Unified School districts fared better than their peers.

Higley lost just 157 students and is planning to give its employees a 5 percent raise and Queen Creek saw its enrollment grow by 1,000 students and is also looking at pay raises. Both districts also chose to have fulltime in-person learning.

  GPS used some of its one-time federal funding given to address the impacts of COVID-19 to fund teachers’ salaries through the end of the school year but the fact remained the district was overstaffed and couldn’t afford keeping them on the payroll as it faced a $10.3 million deficit for next year.

During monthly budget reports given at the governing board meetings this year, layoffs were never raised as a possibility.

In January district administrators internally began laying the groundwork for letting go of teachers, it was revealed at Tuesday’s meeting.

A Student Centered Staffing Committee was formed, comprised of three elementary principals, three talent management representatives and three secondary school principals, which began meeting in early February, according to Shawn McIntosh, assistant superintendent of Talent Management.

The committee developed a “scoring rubric” in mid-February to measure performance and in early March each principal “scored every faculty employee on their campus,” McIntosh told the board. 

He said the enrollment decline determined how many teachers were needed and the district in January accounted for those who are retiring or resigning but “we were still overstaffed.” He added the process the district used for the layoffs was vetted by an attorney.

McIntosh said the reduction in teachers won’t increase class sizes next year. “Next year’s student-to-teacher ratio, those ratios are still set,” he said. “They are still the same.”

He added some teachers next year may have to take an involuntarily transfer in order to ensure programs are staffed.

“Teachers work for the district, not necessarily a school or a site,” he said. “So there may be some teachers that have to move campuses or move programs based upon their endorsements and their certifications.”

In situations where transfers are impossible or there’s the lack of a qualified teacher for a particular program, the district would hire, he added.

 Betz said the district anticipated a $4 million to $6 million savings from the layoffs and another $1 million from the closing of the campus now occupied by Neely Traditional Academy. 

Neely instead will relocate to the Houston Elementary School site. The board voted unanimously March 30 to close Houston and expand Burk Elementary’s boundary to take in Houston students.

Philpot said the district is expected to receive a third allocation from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and questioned why the district couldn’t use that one-time money to keep teachers in place should enrollment pick back up next year.

According to Betz, school districts are expected to know at the end of April how much money they can expect to receive from ESSER III.

Although GPS was in the dark, Mesa schools administration told its board last week it expected $160 million and might use some of those funds to avoid layoffs.

Board member Reed Carr asked Betz what would happen if the district disregarded her conservative estimate of the 400-student loss. If the district failed to realize the enrollment it needed in the new school year, she replied, “we would have to stop spending immediately, we’d have to freeze all hires and we may have to take money back that was allocated to departments and schools.” 

The worst-case scenario is the district would have to reduce salaries or do mid-year layoffs or furloughs, which would then impact everyone, she added.

More than a dozen parents, students and teachers spoke at the meeting.

“Yes, I will admit I’ve seen firsthand the enrollment records were low this year,” said Mesquite High School senior Katarina Nall. “However, it is irresponsible and short-sighted to fire 152 teachers. 

“Teachers will be back in our classrooms as quickly as they are safely able to do and enrollment numbers will subsequently go back up. COVID cases will continue to go down and enrollment numbers will subsequently go back up.

 “You’re thinking of these teachers that you’re firing as only numbers and part of your budget.”

Katarina then went on to name beloved teachers who were laid off at her school – an arts teacher “whose passion for creativity coats the walls of the B building;” an American Sign Language teacher “who’s instilled in her students a love of an entire language and culture;” and a teacher who helped many students find their voices on the speech and debate team.

Mike Zendlewski was emotional as he spoke of his wife’s dedication to the district, where she worked 21 years – the last 10 teaching AP government.      “She did not want to speak today,” he said. “She’s simply too shattered.”

He said his wife over the last five years gave up her prep hour to teach an additional class, she’s taught summer school since 2003 and been an online teacher for Global Academy when it first began in 2007.

 “For several years she was a coordinator for curriculum for the district,” he added. “I mentioned all of this to let you know how involved my wife is with this district on multiple levels. She’s a quiet, steady force at her campus she doesn’t like or need the spotlight. She would rather work behind the scenes and help the school and her district.”

For example, last March when the governor ordered schools closed and to go virtual, his wife developed the curriculum for the last six weeks of school for all district teachers to use, Zendlewski said. 

“She did not get paid for any of this,” he said. “You will not see this in her professional-development folder. She was not given a certificate. She did this without hesitation.”

He said in the fall the family had to make a decision whether she should return in-person to the classroom due to her health issues.

“I wanted her to stay at home and teach remotely,” Zendlewski said. “She would not and could not because as she told me, her AP students needed her. I worried that she would contract COVID. She just went along with her day, wore her mask and did whatever she needed to do. And again, that is my wife.”

Amber Franco, president of the Gilbert Education Association, said many of the teachers “were shocked and angered” when they received their notices.

“These teachers are valued,” Franco said. “They are essential and it will be a huge loss to the district (and) our Gilbert community. This reduction in force isn’t about good or bad teachers. Teachers on this list have worked successfully in this district in some cases for over 20 years. They have built relationships with their students and the community they serve. They have changed lives.”

Honors Algebra II and geometry teacher Heather Bartlett broke down in tears as she spoke.

“I moved here from Tucson during the pandemic,” the Campo Verde High teacher said. “I want to thank you for clarifying some of the reasons why I may have been riffed but I am going to ask you for my rubric to find out where I fell short this year as an educator. This decision extends beyond my career and this affected my family as well.”

Elise Villescaz, a former GPS teacher, said the relationships teachers build with students drive enrollment and urged the district to support the educators.

 “Honor the people who are behind the shiny programs,” she said. “My heart hurts to see this much institutional knowledge, years of experience, expertise and powerful relationships leave the district.” 

 Paul Del Rio said he moved to Gilbert because of its schools. Both his sons attended district schools.

“What’s at the core of any good school is great teachers, longevity and what they teach our kids,” Del Rio said. “It’s not how great the school looks or you got the best pool or the best track field. That all decays but the quality of teaching doesn’t decay. That carries on throughout a person’s entire life.”

He also called out Superintendent Shane McCord’s comment that the district’s communications and marketing director was working with campuses on a marketing plan to drive up enrollment.

“This is its own marketing and it’s not a good one,” he said of the district’s layoffs. “The firing of teachers in this day and age of social media, word is going to get out. How you treat your teaches, it does its own marketing.”

 He said the district can’t put numbers on the “value of great teachers.”

 Gilbert High School sophomore Luke Davis said the district was getting rid of “the best teachers.”

“All the teachers that are getting fired, they’re not the teachers that people don’t care about,” Luke said. “They’re the teachers that all the students love.”

He said Pete Davis, his German teacher and a swim coach is being laid off and he doesn’t understand why,

 “Somehow he still ended up in the RIF,” Luke said of the 19-year teacher “That doesn’t really make sense.”

He said students are texting each other about the layoffs and “all these students are leaving because they don’t have their favorite teachers any more. All the good teachers are leaving.”

Luke said students are also telling other students not to enroll at Gilbert High because “why would they tell them to go to this school when all their favorite teachers got cut just because they’re older?

“You know the older teachers did get cut and I know you said that they didn’t but I don’t believe that’s true. The older teachers who get paid more because they’re better teachers got cut more.”

McCord later said Luke was inaccurate in his statement about the district targeting more experienced teachers.

McCord also at the meeting apologized for the way teachers were informed of their dismissal.

“Last Friday afternoon, 152 teachers were told they were going to be riffed,” McCord said. “That came as a shock to many if not all and for that I apologize. As we discussed how to navigate this process with our attorney we were advised to be as concise as possible and stick to our policy. 

“The message that was delivered was cold and sterile and that was never the intention but nonetheless that’s how it was given and received.”

Board member and retired educator Sheila Uggetti said when the board had to make some difficult decisions a year ago about graduation and other things, she remarked how it was the most difficult decision she’s ever had to make.

“I never thought the next decision would be worst than the previous one,” she said. “But I have to say that for me personally this decision tonight is probably the most difficult decision that I’ve ever had to make and it’s out of our control.

“I believe that everybody sitting in this room who’s had anything to do with any of this has done it with the best of intentions, including all of our principals and everyone that’s involved. I’ve lost sleep. My heart is broken. I know a number of people that are involved in this and it is not easy for any of us to even be having this discussion and I can only say I’m very sorry.”