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Judge challenges teacher layoffs

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staffJudge challenges teacher layoffs
Wednesday May 08, 2002

BUSD recovery plan thrown into chaos 


An administrative law judge issued a ruling Tuesday siding with more than 20 Berkeley teachers who have challenged their layoff notices, wreaking havoc on the district’s $5.4 million recovery plan. 

Judge Jonathan Lew found that the district made a number of errors in determining the teachers’ seniority, according to district and union sources who saw the ruling, throwing into doubt the district’s ability to lay them off. 

Layoffs are at the center of the district’s plan to make up an estimated $5.4 million shortfall next year and Associate Superintendent of Administrative Services David Gomez worried that the Lew ruling may prevent the district from following through on eight to 10 layoffs. 

“We’re sweating bullets here,” said Gomez, noting that the district will have to search for alternative cuts. 

Gomez, who emphasized that Berkeley Unified will not have a full grasp on the ramifications of the ruling until officials meet with legal counsel on Thursday, said the district may have to initiate a second round of layoffs in August to make up for the reversal. 

Earlier this year, the district pushed to meet a March 15 legal deadline to inform certificated employees, including teachers, that they may be laid off next year. 

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But Gomez said state law allows the district to layoff certificated personnel in August if the state provides a “cost of living adjustment” in state funding of less than two percent. Gomez said that adjustment is scheduled to be 1.6 percent. 

Further program cuts are also a possibility, he said, but officials will attempt to avoid them. 

“We’re already down to the bone marrow,” Gomez said. 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said the union was “quite pleased” with the ruling. He said the district can avoid further layoffs if it provides strong retirement incentives, inducing veteran teachers to leave the profession early. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the district would offer incentives a few weeks ago, in the form of lump sum payments, but has not provided details. Fike urged the district to talk specifics, especially in the wake of the Lew decision. 

“The results here underscore the need for the district to come out with an announcement on retirement incentives and leave incentives immediately,” he said. 

Board of Education President Shirley Issel said she was worried about the prospect of a new round of layoffs in August. 

“It introduces new uncertainties for current staff,” Issel said. “If we can be issuing layoff notices as late as August, it would seem to me it could make people feel very insecure about their positions.” 

Issel said that sense of insecurity could hurt the district’s ability to retain current staff.