Teachers worry in fog of uncertainty

Published 5:00 am Monday, May 2, 2005

Young teachers just starting their careers are eying the futurewith anxiety as they await word from their districts on whetherthey will be returning to work next year.

Local school districts have not passed out pink slips to anyteachers, but superintendents are cautioning that the letters ofintent not to rehire some teachers are a possibility if statelegislators “underfund” education for a second straight year.

Under state law, teachers must have been notified by April 15 ifthere were plans not to renew their contract with the district.However, since a state budget has yet to be passed, superintendentssay it was impossible to know by that deadline what their needswould be.

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“If the budget says we can’t afford a teacher, then we can’tafford one,” said Lincoln County School District SuperintendentTerry Brister. “At that point we’ll have to go on the advice of ourattorney.”

Teachers most at risk, superintendents say, are those withlittle experience or who have not been in the district long enoughto build seniority.

“It is those first and second year teachers who most likelywould feel the effects if we have to cut certified personnel,”Brister said.

Kellee Smith, who teaches remedial language arts, reading andmath to third through sixth graders at West Lincoln AttendanceCenter, knows it is a possibility she may be cut should thatoccur.

This year was the Amite County native’s first at West Lincoln,and her previous experience teaching second grade at LibertyElementary was less than two years.

“You have to worry,” Smith said. “I just try to keep my hopes upthat something will come through.”

Her family is stable financially, but does struggle at times tomeet expenses, she said. When she was hired at West Lincoln, herhusband quit his job to return to college full-time to pursue histeaching degree. There is also the couple’s two-year-old daughterto think of.

“We just try to be very optimistic,” Smith said. “At least hehas something to fall back on. He can go back to work.”

However, teaching is all she knows, she said.

“I see myself here until I retire. I can’t picture myself doinganything else,” Smith said. “I would probably be a stay-at-home momand try to do something else to be around children.”

Smith said having made it into a district with the reputation ofLincoln County she would hate to take a job in another district.She would rather substitute or tutor and hope a position at thedistrict would open soon that she could fill.

“Once someone gets into a district like Lincoln County theystay,” she said. “Deep down, I think everything will work out, butI worry about myself and the other teachers too.”

Conversations with teachers in similar situations throughout thedistrict have shown her that they run the emotional spectrum fromconstant worry and stress to the relative comfort of knowing theywould make it because their spouse has a good job.

Although anyone has a chance to lose their job to budget cuts,Smith said, teachers the past few years seem to rely more on thewhims of state legislators to keep theirs, regardless of howstellar their performance.

Smith, the daughter of two educators, said teaching used to be astable profession, but in the past few years it has “always beensomething.”

“When my parents taught, I don’t ever remember them coming homeand wondering if they were going to lose their jobs to budgetcuts,” she said.

For the first time in memory, the state legislature adjournedthe session without passing a budget for the next year. GovernorHaley Barbour is expected to call a special session in May to dealwith the budget.

Meanwhile, superintendents are withholding making any finaldecisions on the elimination or cutting of funds to programs orpersonnel until they have a budget to work with.

Smith said she is not upset with the legislature for theirfailure, but she is disappointed that they would adjourn withoutfinalizing a topic as important as the state budget.

“It’s left everyone wondering – and not just teachers,” shesaid. “I think we would all feel better to know something one wayor the other.”

It amazes her, she said, that deadlines for legislators are notthe same as deadlines in other professions.

“If you have a deadline or objective to meet you should meetit,” Smith said. “We can’t put off state testing no matter howill-prepared we feel. We can’t make our deadlines go away. Yet theycan manipulate the calender to change their deadlines.”

She said she sympathizes with the superintendents and knows theyhave tough decisions ahead because all indications are that thestate will again fail to meet the funding requests of theDepartment of Education. Superintendents will have to decide whereto make those cuts with the best interests of the district inmind.

“So what gets cut? Teachers? Athletics? Gifted (programs)?Special Education? For some kids that’s their niche and that’swhat’s going to get them to college,” she said. “It’s a tough callto make.”