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EDUCATION

Hundreds of Rhode Island teachers face layoffs as districts grapple with the coronavirus fallout

The deadly virus has wreaked havoc on state and local budgets

Teachers at Central Falls High School and other public schools in Rhode Island are facing layoffs.
Teachers at Central Falls High School and other public schools in Rhode Island are facing layoffs.Gretchen Ertl/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE – Hundreds of public school teachers across Rhode Island are facing layoffs as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to wreak havoc on state and local budgets, and state leaders are offering few clues on how much aid districts should expect for the fiscal year that begins next month.

The state-mandated deadline to issue layoff notices to teachers was Monday, and at least 489 educators from 17 districts have been informed that their jobs may be cut, according to a survey prepared by the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. The list does not include every district or any public charter schools, so it’s likely the number of layoff notices will be higher.

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It’s not uncommon for districts to issue layoff notices on June 1 and then rehire most or all of its teachers once final budget numbers are squared away, but local leaders are preparing for a challenge that they haven’t faced in recent years: With the state seeking to close a $600 million gap in its own budget, Governor Gina Raimondo hasn’t ruled out reducing the $1.2 billion in education funding she proposed in January.

“It is very difficult this year due to the uncertainty of the state budget,” said East Providence superintendent Kathryn Crowley. She said 33 certified teachers and 72 non-certified educators have been told they may be laid off.

“I went with a worse-case scenario of a 10 percent cut in state aid,” Crowley said. “I hope this does not become reality.”

Like most states, Rhode Island has seen steep declines in income and sales tax revenues as well as other key funding sources like gambling revenue as a result of the coronavirus. While the state did receive $1.25 billion in federal stimulus aid, it is not currently allowed to use that funding to replace lost revenue. Raimondo has said she hopes Congress will relax those restrictions or pass a new relief package that does provide direct aid to state governments.

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The Democratic-led House of Representatives has already approved a $3 trillion package that includes funding for local governments, but Republican leadership in the Senate has balked at providing additional relief for the time being.

Other districts that have issued layoff notices include Burrillville, Central Falls, Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, Exeter-West Greenwich, Johnston, Middletown, North Providence, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Scituate, Smithfield, Tiverton, Westerly, and Woonsocket, according to Tim Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

Providence, the state’s largest school district, did not issue layoff notices to teachers, but district officials have said they intend to lay off an undisclosed number of central office employees by the end of the month.

Duffy said the state is expected to receive $122 million in additional education funding - for K-12 schools and colleges - through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but it is required to maintain its level of aid for local districts “no less than the average appropriations” for the last three fiscal years.

In a May e-mail sent to his members, Duffy estimated that means the state could cut up to $128 million in aid to districts, and still receive its full share of new federal funding.

“I assume that districts made decisions based on that,” Duffy said. “If the feds put more money in later this year, the layoffs can be recalled by the start of school. Those employees laid off can collect unemployment.”

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Pete Janhunen, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said the state has not traditionally tracked annual layoff notices, and is not doing so this year. But he acknowledged that local education agencies, which include districts and charter schools, appeared to be making staffing decisions based on the three-year average of state aid.

“While the aid is important to all LEAs, some are more reliant upon it than others, so potential reductions could be potentially more impactful,” Janhunen said in an e-mail.

One of the districts facing the deepest cuts is controlled by the state: Central Falls. The tiny district of 3,000 students was facing budget trouble even before the coronavirus struck Rhode Island because of an unexpected spike in students this year, but its school board voted 3-2 over the weekend to “lay off 36 employees, including art and music teachers, nurses, and librarians,” according to chairwoman Stephanie Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said Central Falls was expected to receive an additional $3.4 million from the state for next school year, but that funding is now in question. She said the state should have pushed the deadline to issue layoffs from June 1 until July to give districts more reliable information, but the proposal was met with “pushback from some stakeholders.”

“This situation is unfair to everyone involved, but especially to those whose names were on the layoff list and to students who once again have to experience watching their teachers lose their jobs because there isn’t enough money,” Gonzalez said.

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Robert Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said his members are seeing a larger number of layoffs than in normal years because of the uncertainty around state funding.

“Sometimes budgets are settled by now and even the ones that aren’t settled by now are relatively predictable,” Walsh said, referring to previous years.

He was also critical of districts that took what he sees as extreme measures by assuming schools will not reopen in the fall and focusing their cuts on specialty educators, like health or gym teachers. The Department of Education has not told districts that they can expect to cut those jobs specifically rather than following traditional collective bargaining agreements, Walsh said.

“Most districts will cooperate with the unions so they don't make those mistakes,” Walsh said.

For now, districts are moving forward with the layoffs, while also scrambling to find other areas to cut in case more savings are needed.

Gonzalez, from Central Falls, said the decisions her board has been forced to make, will only harm students who need the most support.

“The uncertainty in the state’s budget has forced the board to make an impossible choice, a choice between our fiduciary responsibility and what is actually good for kids,” Gonzalez said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.