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Sarah Upstill reads with one of her third grade students during reading time in class at Futures Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. on Monday, March 14, 2011. Thompson is one of sixteen teachers, 100 % of the teaching staff at Futures, who will be getting layoff notices because of the seniority-based layoff law. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

OAKLAND -- The Oakland school district has sent layoff warnings to more than one-fifth of its teaching staff. It was an extreme step, and school officials say they took it to prepare for an extreme budget scenario: the loss of as much as $900 in state funding per student, or $30 million.

The threat of layoffs left few schools in the district untouched, but it hit some much harder than others.

Like most districts, Oakland uses the "last-in, first-out" rule to determine who will keep their jobs in a time of financial uncertainty. This means schools with newer teachers stand to be more deeply affected by layoffs than those staffed by veterans.

No place illustrates this phenomenon more clearly than Futures Elementary, a new school with a 93 percent poverty rate in one of Oakland's most violent neighborhoods.

Principal Steven Daubenspeck said every one of his teachers could be replaced next year -- the same teachers who have brought about strong test score gains and a nurturing environment.

"It is a slap in the face of teachers that have worked days and nights and weekends here," he said.

Futures isn't alone.

Daubenspeck said he surveyed principals of 26 schools in East Oakland and learned that 17 of them could lose at least 30 percent of their teachers.

Community United, an elementary school that shares a campus with Futures, could lose 75 percent of its staff, said Monica Moreno, its new principal.

Some teachers say that using years of service as the primary criteria for layoffs is the fairest, most straightforward way to implement the cost-cutting measure.

But others say it's not fair because it harms students in poor neighborhoods the most -- those who attend schools with the toughest time recruiting and keeping experienced staff.

"How are they going to feel next year when there are new staff, most of whom didn't want to be there in the first place?" said Luc DeArmey, a third-year teacher at Futures who received a layoff warning. "I think, in the end, the teachers are going to be all right. It's always the kids who suffer the brunt of this."

Seniority-based layoff practices are common across the nation, but California is one of 11 states in which they have been written into state law, according to Education Week. (California law does provide an exemption for junior staff with specialized training in high-needs subject areas.

Using that provision, the Oakland school district protected teachers with bilingual and special education credentials from layoffs.)

A lawsuit filed last year against the nation's second-largest school system might lead to changes in how such decisions are made. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California argued the Los Angeles school district's layoff policies disproportionately affected high-poverty, high-minority schools. Over the objections of the local teachers union and Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, the school district has agreed to spare 45 schools from layoffs.

Last week, a state appellate court allowed the school district to go forward with its new layoff policy.

Arun Ramanathan, director of the Oakland-based civil rights advocacy group Education Trust-West, said he hoped other districts would adopt similar policies. "I think the judge has provided an interpretation of the law that districts could utilize to protect its highest-poverty schools," he said.

Oakland could soon see a similar legal challenge. District spokesman Troy Flint confirmed that Oakland Community Organizations, an alliance of local churches, schools and other groups, had recently requested data on the distribution of seniority-based layoffs.

"We're looking at the law and recent interpretations of the law to see what latitude we have that allows us to implement layoffs in a more equitable fashion," Flint said.

Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, said she opposes the plan adopted in Los Angeles, specifically the blanket protection received by so many schools at the expense of others. But, she said, she didn't want the issue to devolve into a conflict between new and veteran teachers. The real issues, she said, are unstable and insufficient funding for public education, and the way in which the school district is spending the money it has.

"I think it's important that we all not start fighting each other during this difficult period," Olson-Jones said. "Truly, I'm heartsick by the number of layoff notices. I don't think we need to go that deep, at all."

While preliminary layoff notices were due Tuesday, final pink slips aren't issued until May, and some could be rescinded after that. Because school boards have little idea how much funding the state government will provide next year, some teachers might not know until well into the summer whether they'll be rehired. Olson-Jones said she would work closely with the school district to place rehired teachers back at the same schools whenever possible.

Katia Hazen has been on staff at Futures since 2007, the year it opened on the old Lockwood Elementary School campus with a brand new teaching staff. She said the teachers have embraced school's philosophy and way of relating to children. Things just can't go back to the way they were -- a large, chaotic, low-performing school with a new principal almost every year, she said.

"This is the first time in 20 years that anything has been working at a site like this," Hazen said. "We know what the alternative is. We've already done that."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/KatyMurphy.

Inside
Teachers, supporters hold rally at Oakland High School to protest layoffs. Page A3