Across America, public-sector job cuts take a heavy toll

Posted April 04, 2012, at 8:01 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Yes, the economy’s growing, the unemployment rate is inching down and America is feeling a little bit better about itself. But don’t think for a minute that all the lost jobs aren’t still taking a severe toll all across this nation — especially all the chopped government jobs.

Since February 2010, the nation’s private employers have added more than 3.9 million jobs, or roughly 164,000 per month. Over the same period, however, some 485,000 government jobs were lost. The effects of those job cuts are being felt by children, families and businesses across America.

When city leaders in cash-strapped Camden, N.J., laid off more than 60 firefighters just over a year ago, many felt it created a public safety nightmare waiting to happen. The loss of nearly one-third of the city’s firefighting capacity was a calculated risk, but a necessary sacrifice in order to close a $26 million budget deficit.

More than a year later, the cracks in the city’s public safety armor are growing wider. Seven, sometimes eight fire companies are doing the work of 11. Volunteer departments in neighboring towns routinely must provide backup. Firefighter injuries are up. So are response times. And during one “brownout week” each month, no Camden firefighter can take vacation or holiday time off.

“It’s been tough. It’s been really tough, morale-wise. We’ve got guys being pushed to the max every day,” said Al Ashley, president of Fire Officers Local 2578 in Camden.

Worse yet is the nagging feeling that the depleted fire department is tempting fate. If a serious structure fire breaks out, each of the city’s seven companies would need to respond, making it impossible to respond to any other fire or emergency at the same time.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when,’ “ Ashley said. “The politicians are playing a game of roulette.”

Last year, 19 percent of U.S. cities cut spending for public safety, according to a survey by the National League of Cities.

Camden, a city of 77,000 — which also cut 168 police officers in 2011 — is the extreme example of that national trend toward leaner, cheaper and ultimately less able state and local governments in the wake of the Great Recession. The 2010 elections, which brought in a wave of conservative policymakers who believe less government is best, exacerbated the situation in many places.

The per-capita employment rate in public education, by far the largest sector of government hiring, is at the lowest level since 1999. And the rate of public employment outside of education has fallen to the 1986 level, said Nicholas Johnson, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.

When the recession hit, Johnson said 33 states raised tax rates, but that wasn’t enough to make up for the decline in property, sales and income tax revenues, which still haven’t fully recovered. Johnson said the recession caused 41 states to raise state college tuition and lay off university staff; 30 cut funding for local school districts; 25 cut funding for seniors and people with dis abilities; and 30 states cut the availability of health care services.

Teachers have been one of the hardest-hit professions in the public sector. Seventy-one percent of school districts reported cuts in state and local funding from last year’s budget, 68 percent eliminated positions this year, and 65 percent expect to do so again next year, according to a new survey by the American Association of School Administrators.

No surprise that job satisfaction among teachers has dropped 15 points from the 59 percent who were “very satisfied” in 2009. It was 44 percent in 2011, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. That’s the lowest level in more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, the percent of teachers who no longer feel their job is secure has jumped from 8 percent in 2006 to 34 percent last year, the survey found.

Nowhere is that feeling more pronounced than in the Chester Upland School District outside Philadelphia, where budget cuts forced layoffs of 187 of the district’s 320 teachers. The district is also in jeopardy of not meeting its payroll after emergency funding runs out.

“We have not missed a paycheck yet, but we don’t know from paycheck to paycheck if there’s going to be money there,” said Gloria Zoranski, president of the Chester Upland Education Association. “There’s money through the end of March,” but April is unclear.

The loss of teachers has caused class sizes to swell. It’s harder to provide individual attention to the district’s 4,300 students. Art and music classes were eliminated district-wide in all grade levels. Reading programs were cut, and electives are no longer offered for secondary-school students. Third- and fourth-year language courses were eliminated, along with higher-level math courses. Even refills for the copying machine are hard to find.

“There just isn’t money to purchase this stuff, so the teachers are more or less purchasing their own,” said Zoranski, who teaches high school business/computer-education classes. The job cuts have left only one IT person for the district, so most of the computers that Zoranski’s students use either need upgrading, repair or replacement.

When teachers at the district’s one high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools were told there was no money to pay them in January, they continued working. Public outcry ultimately prompted the state to provide $3.2 million in emergency funding. When that money runs out this month, Zoranski isn’t sure what will happen.

“We’re just coming to work and not thinking about it,” she said. “But in the back of our minds, we know that one day they’re going to tell us that they can’t make payroll. But we’re going on like we’re not in this financial trouble, because we want the district to survive.”

In Georgia, the state board of education recently agreed to waive restrictions on class size for the fourth straight year, as “austerity” cuts in the state budget continue to force teacher layoffs that lead to larger classes. In the Cobb County School District just outside Atlanta, 250 teachers and 26 paraprofessionals will likely be cut next year to close a projected $62 million deficit caused by state funding cuts.

Most Georgia school districts are also furloughing teachers without pay for two to 10 days — at a time when many teachers are being paid less than they were three or four years ago, and also being asked to be more accountable.

“I’m hearing more and more from our members that ‘I’m thinking about retiring a little earlier’ or ‘I’m looking at a private school opportunity because I’ve just had it,’” said Tim Callahan, a spokesman with the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

The larger classes are stressful for all teachers, but “particularly for our new teachers right out of school,” Callahan said. “Suddenly they’re looking at 34 or 35 high school students, so they really have to be part lion tamer, you know. It’s tough. So the impact of increased class sizes is very negative.”

In California — which has lost 32,000 full-time teachers since the 2007-2008 school year — the impact of seniority-based teacher layoffs hits particularly hard on low-income, minority students. They disproportionately attend schools with younger instructors who can be bumped by older, more tenured teachers who’ve lost their jobs at other schools in the district.

In 2010, the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington studied this teacher “churn” caused by “last in, first out” layoff policies at the 15 largest school districts in California. They found that for teachers with up to two years’ experience, high-poverty schools would lose 30 percent more teachers than wealthier schools, while schools with the most minorities would lose “a staggering 60 percent more teachers than would the schools with the fewest minority students.”

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