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Teacher tenure proves bittersweet Many across state achieve milestone only to be laid off

When Williamsville teachers are awarded tenure, they are invited to say a few happy words to the School Board. But Lori Chilcott's expression was sober, not smiling, as she carefully unfolded her written remarks.

"I would like to thank you for your vote of confidence and your belief in me as a highly qualified and effective teacher," she told the School Board last week. "It is both an honor and a privilege to teach and work in a school district where I reside with my family."

Her voice cracked. She looked up and took a deep breath before continuing.

"This moment is bittersweet, however, as, a few minutes ago, you voted to abolish my position as a Spanish teacher in this district," she concluded.

Chilcott is one of about 500 teachers in Erie and Niagara counties who are being laid off at the end of this school year as a result of budget cuts due, primarily, to the loss of state funding.

The abolishment of these positions, however, is coinciding in many districts with the awarding of teacher tenure. Tenure marks the end of a teacher's probationary period with a district. It's considered a milestone achievement -- recognition that they are accomplished professionals and deserving of job protections that untenured teachers don't get.

Tenure awards are typically announced and celebrated toward the end of a school year, marked with special receptions, congratulatory speeches and a big cake.

But this is not a typical year.

This year, teachers are losing their jobs -- 11,000 across the state -- at levels that are unrivaled since the 1970s, according to the New York State United Teachers. These layoffs don't include the additional loss of school support staff positions and teaching positions eliminated through retirements and attrition.

"Nearly all of these will be highly educated, dedicated young people who have devoted their schooling and careers to their students and now see themselves tossed to the unemployment line," NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said.

Because layoffs are done by seniority, younger teachers represent the majority of those being laid off. That is the scenario Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other state leaders saw coming this year but were unable to stop.

Many of these same teachers are also, coincidentally, up for tenure.

Teachers who meet a district's rigorous teaching standards are granted tenure after two or three years on the job, depending on their background.

"When you award tenure, you're awarding a teacher for not only their work, but the assessment they'll be good for children for the rest of their careers," said Cam Morton, Orchard Park's assistant superintendent of human resources and administration.

But that designation does not protect a teacher from layoffs. In Orchard Park, for instance, 10 of the 17 teachers who were laid off Tuesday night had just received tenure the previous month.

"As a coincidence, we're talking about the same people," Morton said.

In Williamsville, 24 teachers were granted tenure just moments after seven full-time teachers were laid off Tuesday. Two of the laid-off teachers, including Chilcott, were on the tenure list.

Another 23 teacher's aides, monitors and clerks were also laid off, though many of those positions were part time.

"It used to be, when you got tenure, you were safe," said Chilcott, who has taught for nine years in three different school districts. "Now, in this day, tenure doesn't have that same significance. You can be let go at any time just because they don't have a job for you. They can keep cutting different programs, and you're out."

The story is the same, or worse, in other districts that have let educators go in even greater numbers.

Some laid-off teachers have been offered part-time work, and area district officials said they eventually hope to rehire more on a full-time basis when the budget crisis passes. Until then, such teachers are considered "inactive" employees with first rights to return when an opening occurs.

"It's never easy," said Kim Kirsch, Williamsville's assistant superintendent for human resources. "It's horrible on people. These young, hopeful people who did the right thing and worked hard are now in the position of going through the first-rate trauma of their careers."

While seniority has always been the basis for layoffs, the governor had endorsed -- and the state Board of Regents approved in May -- a new teacher evaluation tool that relies heavily on student test results.

> Valuable people

It could eventually replace seniority as a standard by which job eliminations occur, but that didn't come soon enough for teachers affected this year.

When bringing newly tenured teachers into an office to tell them their job has been cut, administrators also talk of their value to the district, Morton said.

"These are people we think highly of, who we're laying off," he said.

Chilcott, 37, has worked in several districts because she took some time off to raise her two young children. They now attend Williamsville schools.

Until now, she has never had to look hard for work. Foreign language teachers are typically in high demand. When the Williamsville teaching position opened up two years ago, Chilcott considered it a dream come true.

"It is such an amazing district to work for," she said.

That made witnessing the abolishment of her position on Tuesday incredibly painful.

"It is an emotional thing," she said. "I know it's happening everywhere, in every district. They're cutting really good people, really good teachers. I love my job. I want to do my job. I want to be in school every day I think that's the consensus of most of the people being laid off. We just want to work."

Unlike the past few years, when decreases in state education funding were mitigated by federal stimulus money, existing teacher vacancies and retirements, Korn said, this year's funding losses are seeing far more warm bodies out the door.

"This sad story is being repeated all over the state as New York abandons its commitment to fund public schools," he said. "We're seeing educated professionals, many of whom have families, losing their jobs."

That appears unlikely to change in the near future.

"We're thinking the next two and three years aren't going to be different from this," Kirsch said.

> Tenure helps resume

While it may appear insensitive to give a teacher tenure and a pink slip at the same time, school officials said it would be even more wrong to deny a laid-off teacher tenure that they rightfully deserve. Not only could these teachers eventually be rehired by their home school districts, their tenure award would be a resume builder that could help them get a leg up on job opportunities in other districts, administrators said.

That's what Chilcott hopes for. She is aware, however, that it won't be nearly as easy for her to find work this time around. Want ads for Spanish teachers used to be plentiful. Not anymore.

"That makes me worried," she said. "I just can't picture myself sitting at home collecting unemployment. That's just not me."

News Staff Reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.


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