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Superintendent Reykdal: Teacher layoffs a normal part of May

Chris Reykdal, Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

News of teacher layoffs in Edmonds and school staff layoffs in Tacoma shocked some Puget Sound residents this week, but Washington Superintendent of Education Chris Reykdal assures everyone that this is a normal occurrence.

As school districts figure out their budgets for the upcoming school year, spring is the time of year when layoffs are decided, Reykdal explained on KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show.

In fact, according to the state’s contract with the teachers union, those being laid off for the upcoming school year must receive notification no later than May.

Teacher layoffs, he said, are just getting more attention this year because of the 2019 levy cap and McCleary changes, with the state now fully funding basic education.

“This is the window [where] that happens, it generally happens every year,” he said. “It’s on heightened alert because obviously, between collective bargaining results from last year, the Legislature reducing local levies, and now a new health care system coming in … there will be districts who have financial hardships.”

RELATED: WPC’s Liv Finne says teacher layoffs the result of raises

The $2 billion allocated by the Legislature to teacher compensation, he said, actually represented “big catch-up raises” that simply matched the trend of increased McCleary spending on other areas of education. Teacher pay grew 28 percent, while education funding as a whole grew 32 percent.

“Teachers don’t appear to be getting more salary than the overall investment in schools, so I’m very comfortable with where we’re going,” he said.

The levy lid, Reykdal explained, has districts apart from Seattle capped at $2,500 per child or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, whichever value is lowest. Levies are frozen here, meaning they cannot be increased with a local vote like in previous years.

“You will not see local levy increases in those $2,500 districts — instead you’ll see layoffs. That’s the market resetting itself to the new financial reality,” Reykdal said. “Some districts kind of weren’t sure where they were a year ago and now they’re starting to see what they can afford.”

This means, he said, that hard choices will have to be made — and one of the most obvious is to reduce labor costs.

Questions of church and state

Reykdal also addressed recent concerns with some school districts, such as the Dieringer School District, advising teachers how to properly greet Muslim students during Ramadan and accommodate the needs of students who are taking part in the traditional month-long fast.

Dori questioned whether or not this was not a violation of the First Amendment separation of church and state.

“I think the law is pretty clear that government in any form should not sanction or embrace a singular faith,” Reykdal replied. “That’s really, really key — so schools should not organize around any of that work. Individual students can express it, as long as it’s not a disruption to others.”

He said that the tougher, more central question is, “Are we being respectful of very diverse religions, given that some of them have very specific faith elements while they are at school?”

Reykdal said that he has not seen the specific instructions sent out by the Dieringer School District, but noted that there is a difference between accommodating students’ religious practices and organizing events around them. Simply making people aware that Ramadan is going on and notifying them that Muslim students may miss class due to fasting does not violate the Constitution in the same way that planning Ramadan activities or celebrations such as Iftar dinners would, according to Reykdal.

“If this is a perception by a district that it is so unknown by the majority culture that is creating oppressive behaviors — they’re forcing students to test, even though they have a big four-week … window, if they’re putting their standardized test in a place that just seems to implicate one religion — it’s okay to inform folks and create a culture of tolerance,” he said.

The superintendent did say that he would look into the Dieringer matter further, as it “sounds a little out of the norm.”

He added that his office does produce calendars every year that identify all religious holidays. Based on this calendar, “teachers are very aware in curriculum, instruction, or testing if their schedule is disproportionately hitting one faith over another,” he said.

Washington public school students are exposed to a variety of world religions in their social studies lessons. Learning standards do not promote any religions but simply inform students about different faiths from a historical and sociological perspective.

“Our social studies curriculum very specifically talks about learning about multiple faiths,” Reykdal said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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