Improved attendance rates lead to rescinded layoff notices for Berkeley teachers

Jan Flatley-Feldman/File

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The Berkeley Unified School District rescinded 148 potential layoff notices due to an unanticipated growth in student attendance this year, which helped fill almost half of the next school year’s projected budget gap in the district.

In contrast to fiscal year 2010-11 — during which time the district lost more than $2 million in unearned income due to absences, according to the district’s website — this year the 1.26 percent districtwide increase in average student attendance in K-12 schools resulted in $1.4 million in additional funds for the coming year.

The school board will use the extra funds to pay the 148 teachers to whom it sent out layoff notices in March in response to cuts to public education in Gov. Jerry Brown’s January budget release, according to district Superintendent Bill Huyett.

While the rescinded layoff notices mean that permanent and probationary teachers will be able to keep their jobs, there is no guarantee that temporary teachers will be hired back, said Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, a labor union that represents more than 700 teachers, counselors and other education professionals.

“I’m unhappy about how the district is portraying (the rescinded layoff notices),” Campbell said. “There’s a very large group of teachers that do not know if they’re going to be rehired.”

But district spokesperson Mark Coplan said that temporary teachers are hired under the clause that they will only be hired on a temporary basis. He also said this is “regular housekeeping” that is not affected by the budget assessment made in conjunction with the increased attendance figures.

Attendance rates may have improved due to the efforts of four newly hired attendance officials at Berkeley High School — the same administrators who discovered the attendance scam at the school, in which as many as 50 students allegedly sold changes to classmates’ attendance records, according to Coplan. The students faced suspension, expulsion or community service, Coplan added.

“(School administrators) found some things that didn’t look right,” Coplan said. “Somebody else had gone in and actually taken out absences, whereas teachers usually just enter them in to the system.”

Although higher attendance has saved over a hundred jobs this year, the extra savings only account for about half of the projected budget shortfall for next year, which means the district still faces a grim financial situation.

In the next few years, the school district could face an additional reduction of nearly $7 million if Brown’s tax initiative is not approved in the November 2012 election. Even if Brown’s tax initiative passes, the district will still be left with reductions ranging from $3 million to $3.6 million.

In addition, this year the district has used up the last of its $1.8 million Federal Jobs Bill funds in order to prevent even more layoffs that it has already issued. The attendance money the district receives from the state — currently $28 per day for each student who is present — has also been on a steep decline, according to Coplan.

Despite increased attendance rates, the district has seen student enrollment drop by 106 students this year and expects it to decrease again next year by another 298 students, according to a May 9 expenditure recommendation for fiscal year 2012-13 from Huyett’s office.

Coplan sees this year’s savings as having a “positive effect” although a tough situation lies before the district.

“(The state) pays you on the previous year’s attendance, and this year’s attendance record has improved our revenue projections for next year, which means that we don’t have to eliminate teachers,” Coplan said.