DCPS to cut teachers' jobs to make up for $62M shortfall; local teachers outraged

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax is hearing from angry local teachers who say their jobs are being cut so the district can save money.

Duval County Schools is looking at a $62 million budget shortfall next school year and is facing tough decisions on how to fill that gap.

Action News Jax's Courtney Cole spoke to a teacher who said not only does it impact their livelihood, it affects the quality of education.

"All of the sudden, my principal calls me in — and I’m thinking it’s to talk to me about how we’re going to do things next year … and she goes, ‘You're one of the ones cut’. The last thing I expected to hear,” Leisha Cowart told Cole.

She’s been teaching for more than a decade, but right now she teaches ninth and 10th grade honors English at Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology Magnet High School.

Related: Duval school bus company’s safety claim does not check out 

But now that the Duval County School Board is looking to make $62 million worth of cuts, she’s not so sure she will get to see her students next year.

"Duval County decided to just do this on a whim. Nobody knew this is how this was going to be done,” Cowart said.

She says the school district is making decisions not necessarily based on how well they’re doing their job, but on what's called a "valued added model" — or VAM.

Cowart said she sat down with the head of their math department at Frank H Peterson and one of their assistant principals and tried to make sense of the formula.

She told Cole it all comes down to what classes you teach and which students you’re assigned.

“If I’m doing a good job according to all of my evaluations and things from my principal — perfect, highly effective scores — this one little piece of data, that differs between which classes I teach, is going to determine whether I’m a good teacher or not?” Cowart asked.

Cowart says the VAM measures if students are reaching the level of progress expected of them on the (FSA) Florida Standard Assessment, instead of progress made by the student day-to-day inside the class, and overall.

“We were told we had to cut nine positions — that’s almost 20 percent of our academic staff, and we’re a magnet school with a waiting list!” Cowart exclaimed.

Cowart says teachers are affected like this every year. It's just more significant this year, because more money is at stake.

“They're going to probably give some of these positions back in August. Someone like me, I can't afford to wait around and hope that I have a position,” Cowart said.

Cowart says she wants to know why it seems like teachers are always the first to face cuts.

“Where are the cuts at the district office? There are a lot of people that work in that very big building downtown. I don't see the cut down there,” Cowart said.

According to the Duval County School District, teachers won’t be laid off, but "surplussed," which means they’ll still be employed, just re-assigned to a different school.

Cowart told Cole  the principal at her high school had no input on which teachers were going to be "surplussed."

“But I don’t want to leave my school — a school where I’ve invested six years into building success and putting together a program of working with ninth and 10th graders, honors kids, pushing them to excel,” Cowart said.

The district is still working to get a total number of how many teachers will be impacted next school year.

“I understand $62 million is a huge hole to climb out of … but what are you going to tell parents and students sitting in a class of 50 ninth graders? What am I going to tell my parents of my students? I’ve got a class, with some kids sitting on the floor,” Cowart said.

Cowart says she already has class sizes that are greater than 30 students.

Cowart believes the cuts should be handled in a different way, but Duval County School Board member Scott Shine told Action News Jax that it comes down to cutting staff or cutting compensation.

Because student funding was only able to be increased by 47 cents for each student, the school district says staff cutbacks were the only way to reach a balanced budget.

Full statement from DCPS to Action News Jax below: 

Our Human Resources department just finalized meetings with schools regarding their budgets for the upcoming school year and are now compiling data including projected surplus status for teachers.

For background purposes, please note that the district recently finalized negotiations with the union on the current collective bargaining agreement.  One of the changes to the agreement involves the process for identifying teachers to be involuntarily transferred, or surplussed, if a school is losing positions.  The change to the surplus language places the district in compliance with section 1012.33, Florida Statutes which requires school districts throughout the state to use teacher performance to determine surplus status.  The language also revised provisions that address exceptions to the surplus language (such as employees with specialized training).   The new language does not impact the number of teachers being surplussed at a school. 

Like prior years, when a teacher is surplussed, he/she is still employed as a teacher in the district and still has all of the rights and privileges of teachers.  The surplussed teacher is reassigned to a school in the district with a current vacancy.  The change in surplus language will not result in any teacher being laid off.

With a base student funding increase of just 47 cents per student underlying a $62 million funding gap, presenting a balanced budget is not possible without impacting staffing. Potential avenues for budget reductions have been discussed with the Board on several occasions, and final recommendations will be made to the Board later this summer.