Berkeley Teachers Protest Layoffs; District Rescinds 49 Pink Slips

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Sunday March 15, 2009 - 10:22:00 PM
Berkeley Federation of Teachers Vice President Cynthia Allman hands out pink roses to laid-off teachers at the "Pink Friday" rally.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Berkeley Federation of Teachers Vice President Cynthia Allman hands out pink roses to laid-off teachers at the "Pink Friday" rally.

Pink balloons, pink bow-ties, pink arm bands and even pink toilet seats marked a rally organized by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers Friday. The "Pink Friday" event was part of a statewide protest of teacher layoffs in response to state education budget cuts. 

One hundred and twenty-seven teachers and counselors in the Berkeley Unified School District received preliminary layoff notices this week. 

School districts were required to notify teachers of impending layoffs by March 13, prompting the California Federation of Teachers to label the day "Pink Friday" and don shades of pink in protests across the state. 

Final layoff notices will go out in mid-May. 

District Superintendent William Huyett brought a glimmer of hope to the event, however, when he delivered a piece of good news to the crowd. 

Huyett said the district would rescind 49 layoff notices next week for teachers of biology, social studies and physical education, as well as multi-credentialed teachers. 

This decision came after the Berkeley Board of Education told district officials at a school board meeting Wednesday that the board was against raising class sizes even during the current budget crisis, Huyett said. 

“That means we will have to reduce the number of layoffs,” he said to loud applause and cheering. “We as a school district will do all we can to save jobs. We are in this position today because our legislators could not agree upon a budget in a timely manner last year [and] because decisions about public education were made behind closed doors.” 

According to event organizers, more than 400 parents, teachers, students and elected officials turned up at the rally outside the district’s headquarters at 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, including Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin. 

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said she was outraged that the state was laying off teachers at a time when California ranks 47th nationally in per-pupil spending. 

Campbell called on the community to lobby their legislators to release the federal stimulus dollars immediately to prevent further layoffs and cuts to programs. 

Tracey Iglehart, a Berkeley Unified kindergarten teacher who received a layoff notice Tuesday, quoted President Barack Obama as saying, "America’s future depends on its teachers.” 

“We are once again being asked to do more for less,” she said. “This is not 21st century thinking and this will not improve our education system.” 

Rosemary Hannon, who teaches dance to students at Cragmont during release periods, said she was laid off from her job because she was on a temporary contract. 

Temporary teachers can be laid off without legal notifications. 

“I have no idea whether I will have a job next year,” said Hannon, who started off in Berkeley Unified as a classified employee and then went on to get teaching credentials last year. “Even if a job exists, I won’t know anything until August or October, and I will have to apply all over again for the same position.” 

Cory Potts, a temporary kindergarten teacher at Cragmont, said that the layoffs were extremely demoralizing for younger teachers just starting out. 

”We are being treated like we are dispensable and unprofessional,” said Potts. “Even though my principal has given me an excellent review of my performance at school, I am being treated like someone who was fired because of doing a poor job. This process is essentially creating a pool of temporary teachers who are losing tenure years due to no fault of their own.” 

A pink toilet seat adorned with the words “Don’t flush our schools down the drain” shared the steps of the Old City Hall with the Brass Liberation Orchestra and a group of union members who performed a “Return of the Super Teachers” skit. 

Anne Scheele, a third-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, was hired on in November and has now received a layoff notice. 

“It’s because I joined in the middle of the year,” said Scheele, who came to the rally with her two young daughters, Olivia and Lucy. “I am concerned because I have to take care of my family and I am a single mother. I spent the past year and a half at school getting my credentials. I have so much energy to give—I am worried about what these cuts mean for my students.”