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LI school districts plan to cut 2,000 jobs

Eighth grade teacher Beverly Robinson helps a student

Eighth grade teacher Beverly Robinson helps a student at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead. (April 14, 2011) Credit: Uli Seit

Long Island school districts plan to slash more than 2,000 jobs for the 2011-12 school year -- including 1,200-plus teachers -- in the biggest wave of staff reductions in two decades.

Newsday's annual survey of spending and staffing plans in the Island's 124 districts projects an overall 3.5 percent cut in the number of teachers, which will produce larger class sizes in many cases. Many districts also plan to trim busing and student programs ranging from art and music to sports.

However, job losses will be offset to a degree by enrollments that are expected to drop less than 1 percent. Even with layoffs, the Island's total teaching force should remain at least at the same level as in 2000-01, when student enrollments were slightly higher.

As school-budget votes approach on Tuesday, district residents face a double whammy: higher taxes, coupled with losses of teachers and student services even if budgets are approved. Across the Island, proposed budgets mean school tax levies are projected to rise 3.96 percent on average next year, outstripping the metropolitan region's 2.3 percent inflation rate.

Islandwide, districts surveyed by Newsday plan to cut a total of 1,269 teaching jobs through layoffs and attrition. The breakdown is 811 teachers in Suffolk County and 458 in Nassau. Overall district employment could drop by as many as 2,150 workers -- about 2.7 percent of the workforce.

The biggest job hits will be felt in central and southern Suffolk County, where low-wealth districts are experiencing heavy losses from the $206-million cut in state financial aid Islandwide.

That number includes $89 million in federal jobs funds that was not renewed. The next school year marks the third in a row that the Island will shed teachers -- and in many localities, next year's losses will be the sharpest so far.

Brentwood -- the Island's largest district, with about 16,000 students -- notified 89 teachers on Friday that they face layoffs. Central Islip plans to cut 86 teachers; Sachem, 65; Patchogue-Medford, 56; William Floyd, 48; and Longwood, 47.

"There have been people in tears this week, people worried about their mortgages," said Joe Hogan, president of Brentwood's teachers union, which also lost about 60 jobs last year. "There are actually people on maternity leave who are going to be laid off. It's tragic."

Potential losses are the worst since 1991, when schools shed about 2,000 workers, half of them teachers.

The numbers are higher in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced layoffs of 4,100 teachers next school year due to state aid cuts. That sparked a protest march last week by hundreds of union members and supporters, who say the state should raise taxes on the rich to preserve school jobs and services.

On Long Island, contract talks continue in many districts, and school officials say some jobs could be saved if unions make concessions. Along with jobs, some districts are eliminating academic programs added in better economic times. Brentwood, Glen Cove and Wyandanch all are trimming daily class schedules back from nine periods to eight at both high schools and middle schools.

School officials say reductions in class schedules will leave less time for elective courses and remedial tutoring. Officials add, however, that recent cuts in state aid leave them little choice.

"This is just driving us downwards, in terms of what we can offer the kids," said Pless Dickerson, interim superintendent of Wyandanch schools.

Wyandanch officials add that some school programs could be restored next school year, if new grant applications are approved. Meanwhile, the district, which has the lowest taxable wealth on the Island, projects a rise in elementary class sizes from 23 students to 28, and in secondary classes from 21 to 26. The high school also expects to drop courses in art and French.

Elsewhere, dozens of local teachers unions have agreed to lower raises than in the past. The latest settlement was announced last week in West Hempstead, where teachers had been without a contract since July 2009.

A new four-year agreement increases pay about 2 percent next year and 1.75 percent in 2012-13, according to the district. However, there will be no retroactive raises for this year and last, and "step" increases built into the salary schedule will be frozen the next two years. The "step" increments are annual pay increases for teachers who are below top scale.

"We're trying to save jobs for our members, and hoping that some of the programs cut for kids will be put back," said Barbara Hafner, president of the 205-member teachers union there. She referred to recent cuts in elementary foreign-language classes and programs for the intellectually gifted.

Not all school systems expect significant cuts. To the contrary, districts generally expanded staffs between 2000 and 2008, and can now lose a few positions without serious impact. Even those taking relatively big hits often insist that most programs will be preserved.

"We're going to be able to weather this storm," said Brentwood's superintendent, Joseph Bond. "But we had to make painful choices, and it's really unfair."

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