District regroups for next year: Barnwell 45 followed state rules on layoffs

The Barnwell 45 school district is still assessing its condition, both financially and physically, in the wake of its March 31 announcement that it would lay off 36 teachers.

Of the 36 teachers affected, 19 were retired teachers; three were part-time retired teachers; five were induction teachers and nine regular instructors were part of the "reduction in force" or RIF layoffs the school board enacted.

Chris Delk of Hilda was one of the teachers caught in the RIF. Delk, 54, is a eighth grade pre-algebra teacher.

"I was the last one hired in the math department at the middle school. I understand what the board is having to go through. I pray for them every day," he said. "It's difficult to tell someone they don't have a job."

Delk has 24 years of teaching experience and previous taught in the Blackville school district. He left the teaching profession for a time but returned to it six years ago, he said.

The retired teachers were in the TERI or Teacher and Employee Retention program through the S.C. Retirement Systems in which a teacher who is eligible to retire can join TERI for up to five years and receive their retirement annuity while still being employed, according to S.C. Retirement Systems data.

Induction teachers are first-year teachers who aren't eligible for the "continuing contract" clause through the education system because they haven't worked in a local district two years or more.

Unless a district informs a teacher (with two or more years experience in that district) that their contract won't be renewed, then the district is obligated to pick up the contract for the next school year, said Roy Sapough, the Barnwell 45 superintendent.

That's the dilemma the district was facing when the school board voted on the layoffs - it doesn't appear the district will have the finances available for all the teacher contracts that were up for renewal, hence the layoffs, he said.

Teacher contracts are renewed annually by April 15.

"That's the issue we had to deal with," Sapough said.

The district followed policy guidelines in determining who would be laid off first. The policy states that it goes from retirement teachers to induction instructors, then to a RIF phase where the first hired of the regular educators would be the first let go, Sapough said.

Dipping into the rank and file of the faculty for the nine teachers involved in the reduction in force - "that was the hardest," said Margaret Matheny, the district human resources director.

"The individuals I talked to who were not renewed were very gracious. The teachers remaining are concerned - that's understandable - that class sizes will be high," she said.

While 36 teachers were laid off, only 32 teaching positions were eliminated, Matheny said.

Some teachers might be hired back after the district gets a better indication of how much state money it will receive when Columbia releases those figures, Sapough said.

"I couldn't wait until May or June to see the projections of the state money. Our backs are up against the wall on the April 15 deadline," he said.

Because of the situation between Gov. Mark Sanford and the federal stimulus money for education, the S.C. State Department of Education is allowing districts to delay teacher contract renewals until May 15.

However, with state revenue projections for education funding still in limbo, this measure hasn't been much help to local districts, according to a press release from Jim Rex, the state education superintendent.

"This is a life crisis situation when you lose your job," Matheny said. "I haven't enjoyed what I've had to do over the last several weeks."

The day after the board enacted Delk's layoff, he was in Columbia for the "Pink Slip" rally protesting with other state educators about Sanford's opposition on the federal stimulus money for state education.

"He's not a public education governor. It's pretty well known his children don't go to public schools," Delk said.

Sanford at the last minute agreed to accept federal stimulus money, but not allocate state education its portion, which he wants to use to pay down state debt.

With Sanford's late stimulus acceptance, the S.C. Department of Education revised and reduced its estimates for the number of education jobs lost to 2,600, which includes 1,500 teaching positions. The education department had originally projected about 5,200 jobs affected.

Despite the financial and political upheavals that have cost him his job, Delk said he wants to remain in education for the joy it brings him in seeing children comprehend previously unknown math concepts.

"That is the No. 1 thing (comprehension). No. 2 is when I walk into Wal-Mart and see students I taught 15, 10 or five years ago and they tell me, ‘You were rough on me when you taught me - but thank you,'" Delk said. "You know when you make a difference. There are a lot of others (teaching joys), but seeing a mind open that finally gets an objective you were trying to teach."

Delk said he is "weighing options" and already has been scouting the Internet for other job possibilities and sending out resumés.