Linda Lockhart is a 20-year veteran at Metro Nashville Public Schools, the last four as a third-grade teacher at Whitsitt Elementary. She’s tenured and has put in extra hours assisting the school’s after-school program.
So Lockhart, 63, was stunned when word trickled down from her principal recently that she and three Whitsitt colleagues wouldn’t be teaching at the Woodbine-area school next year. Lockhart’s position has been terminated, and she will have to look at other schools to continue her career at Metro.
“I was totally shocked,” Lockhart told The City Paper. “My test scores have always been good. I’ve always gotten good evaluations.”
Lockhart isn’t alone in her frustration.
In all, the positions of 334 teachers — covering Metro elementary, middle and high schools — have been eliminated prior to next school year, with district officials hoping to relocate affected teachers to other schools. But there’s no guarantee that will happen — it boils down to a still-unknown number of openings elsewhere.
“There will be reductions in force if we don’t have sufficient vacancies in the school system to cover those positions,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said, “because we will go into the next school year with fewer teaching positions in our district.”
The reality of eliminated teaching positions has gone largely underreported in Nashville, perhaps in part because Mayor Karl Dean has announced intentions to fully fund Metro schools.
Dean’s budget proposal for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which awaits Metro Council approval, supports schools financially to the level requested by the Metro Nashville Board of Education. However, the mayor and school board’s plan does not cover more than $30 million in depleted federal stimulus monies and approximately $10 million in vanishing federal-jobs program dollars. Official have known this day was coming, and it’s resulting in more than 300 terminated positions.
“We are reducing the number of teachers in our school system,” Register said. “Our local budget has built back in an additional 130 positions, but in terms of federal jobs lost, the number is higher than that. We’ve really had to tighten up.
“The real reduction in the number of classroom teaching positions will be greater than what we usually have,” he said, adding that “academic coaches” are among the hardest hit.
A reduction in teaching positions comes as the district’s 78,000-student population is expected to increase next year. State law mandates a 1-to-20 teacher-to-pupil ratio for students kindergarten through third grade, a 1-to-25 ratio for students fourth through sixth grade, and a 1-to-30 ratio for students seventh through 12th-grade.
“We will maintain the state-mandated class size, but the loss of that federal money really hurts,” Register said.
School officials are hoping to retain the 334 teachers who are losing their positions by relocating them to new schools. Each year, Metro loses hundreds of teachers who retire or leave the system. In addition, the district last week notified 265 teachers that their jobs have been terminated for state-licensure or performance reasons. Job openings are supposed to come through these two avenues.
Metro held two job fairs last week for displaced teachers in hopes of finding them new homes. But teachers –– as well as the local teachers’ union president — came away roundly criticizing the events as chaotic and unorganized.
“I’d say it was generally a disaster,” said Metro Nashville Education Association president Erick Huth, a sentiment expressed in several anonymous letters teachers sent to the union.
Criteria for selecting displaced teachers have raised issues as well.
Lockhart, the veteran Whitsitt Elementary teacher, is among a handful of teachers who have alleged the district chose to displace her because of her age. Older teachers tend to earn larger salaries than newer employees. The teachers’ union is helping file complaints through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“There seems to be a pattern of discrimination against older teachers and minorities in some instances,” Huth said. “It is clear to us that there is some discrimination involved.”
June Keel, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said she rejects those accusations.
“If any teachers feels that he or she has been mistreated unfairly in this process, they have a right under the educational agreement to file a grievance,” Keel said.
Keel said the 334 teachers displaced within Metro right now represent a substantially larger figure than in the past. She said criteria in displacing teachers included seniority, certification, special training, instructional needs for individual schools and leadership roles in extracurricular activities.
“Many of these teachers, although they were classroom teachers, were being paid by true federal funds,” she said. “When those funds dried up, we had to reallocate the teachers.”
Keel said she believes the district can retain all of the displaced teachers because of natural turnover and attrition.
“We have easily, over the summer, over 300 teachers who leave us because of resignations and retirements,” Keel said. “There’s also a number of teachers whose contracts have not been renewed, most of them for licensure.”
As for a teacher’s former position, there are no plans to fill it.
“That position is gone,” Keel said.