Ten days have passed since all 27 non-tenured teachers in the Hamilton School District received letters warning that their contracts may not be renewed next year because of uncertainty regarding the general fund budget.
Last week, district superintendent Duby Santee said that in a worst-case scenario, the school would face a $500,000 deficit, meaning the possibility of losing 14 full-time-equivalent staff positions.
Now, the reality has begun to sink in for teachers, and the uncertainty is weighing everybody down, according to John Stromberg, head of the Hamilton Unified Teachers union.
"It's pretty scary," Stromberg said. "There's a lot of concern. If we lose, say, 11 teachers, it's going to be tough on everyone. From the students' standpoint, from the teachers' standpoint, it's going to mean bigger classrooms. You know, even for the administrators, it's going to be tough, because they will have to do all the reshuffling and stuff. I'm kind of holding out hope that we don't get to the worst-case scenario, but right now, there is a lot of uncertainty."
There are 115 teachers employed in the Hamilton School District. Teachers gain tenure once they sign their fourth consecutive contract. The base salary for a new teacher in the Hamilton School District is $28,600, and the maximum salary for a teacher with a master's degree and 20 years of experience is $52,777, with a longevity stipend of $645 coming every year after the 21st year.
"We have not had an increase in our base salary in the last two years in Hamilton, and if we don't increase this year, it would be three consecutive years," Stromberg said. "We are negotiating our contract this year, but we are far from the highest-paid in the state. We get steps (salary increases) for each year of experience, and if you get more educational credits, you move over on the salary schedule, but the base salary doesn't increase."
Stromberg said the consequences of losing so many teachers would extend beyond the classroom.
"A lot of our teachers also have kids in the district," Stromberg said. "If we lose 11 teachers that each have two kids, that's 22 kids less in our district enrollment. That would put another spin on our funding dilemma. The community itself would see a pretty good economic downturn from those positions being lost."
Stromberg said the union has discussed several options for avoiding teacher layoffs, but they can't do much until they know what the state Legislature is going to do.
"We don't have anything firm yet," he said. "About the only thing there would be to do is if we agreed to take a pay freeze. There has been some discussion of that. We are actually negotiating our contract this year. We haven't gotten to the money issue yet. We're waiting on the budget situation. The bottom line is most teachers agree that we are going to have to do whatever we can to save as many teacher jobs as possible, so we'll see what happens."
The district is requesting a technology levy of $235,000, and ballots were mailed to all registered voters on April 18 and must be returned by 8 p.m. on May 3.
Virginia Opitz, a Hamilton Middle School teacher, has been a vocal supporter of the technology levy. She has been holding a sign every morning in the Hamilton Safeway parking lot urging people to vote. She said although she now has tenure, she feels the pain of her fellow teachers who don't know if they will have a job next year.
"That happened to me when I was a non-tenured teacher, and it's really scary," Opitz said. "I feel for them because a lot of them have youngsters to support and a family. While I realize the district has to do that, because of the state budget situation, it makes me really sad."
Opitz said she hasn't gotten the sense that any of her fellow teachers are panicking just yet.
"They are taking it in stride," Opitz said. "They are hoping that the worst doesn't come to be."
Stromberg said he has encouraged many non-tenured teachers to keep their eyes open for other jobs, but that is of little help because there aren't many teaching jobs available right now.
"That's one of the things I did tell people, was don't hesitate to look around," Stromberg said. "If they see something they like, I would take the job. But to be honest, teaching jobs are pretty tight to come by right now. I looked at the Office of Public Instruction website at job openings, and usually this time of year, there are pages and pages, and there really isn't any. It used to be that people were willing to change districts, but not so much anymore. The teachers in Hamilton are happy to be here, so they are just going to ride it out and see what happens. I haven't had anyone tell me they have taken another job yet."
The Hamilton School Board will meet on May 9, at which time teachers will be told if their contracts are not renewed. Stromberg said he thinks there will be at least one special meeting between then and June 1, when all teacher contracts are automatically renewed for the next year.
Stromberg said he feels like the Hamilton School District has been fairly prudent when it comes to making financial decisions.
"It could be a lot worse," Stromberg said. "Our school board has had to make some pretty tough decisions, and Mr. Santee has too. They have been very cautious with what they spend money on. For example, when we had the stimulus money come around, they could have put it in salary, but they knew it was going to be gone in two years. They had the foresight to use it on one-time expenditures, which is what that money was intended for. Our community should be proud with what our school board and superintendent did at that time. It saved us some big-time heartbreak. Other districts in the state spent that money on teacher salaries, and they had to make some tough decisions. As crazy as things get in school board meetings, they did a good job there."
Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or email@example.com.