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Molly Moorhead
By Molly Moorhead March 1, 2013

Arne Duncan says teachers are losing jobs because of sequestration

We’ve heard that sequestration could delay airline flights, that kids might not be able to get vaccines, or attend pre-school.

In another doomsday warning about what the sweeping cuts to federal spending could mean, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the sequester has already put teachers out of a job.

"There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can't come back this fall," Duncan said on Face the Nation on Feb. 24, 2013.

Most funding for public schools comes from state and local government tax revenue. But money for special education and Title I, which supplements the costs of educating poor children, is handed down from the federal government. The White House says Title I would take a $725 million hit if sequestration goes into effect. Special ed programs could lose $600 million.

But does that mean teachers are "literally … getting pink slips"?

Districts under fire

If you read your local newspaper, you’re probably already aware that school districts have been in a financial bind for several years, largely due to the recession. The bad economy depressed real estate values and shrunk tax revenue, which in turn reduced the tax money that school districts could spend.

Now, with the potential loss of federal dollars because of the sequester, local school districts again stand to lose some important revenue. But it’s important to bear in mind that there is no direct cause/effect relationship between federal cuts and school staff reductions. Local districts decide what to keep and what to cut; a federal budget cut does not dictate that teachers be laid off.

That said, a spokesman for the Department of Education pointed us to numerous examples of districts around the country that are bracing for difficult decisions, including letting teachers go:

• Officials with Great Falls Public Schools in Montana are preparing a list of planned layoffs to the school board, including 20 teachers who could be at risk.

•  In New York, the Utica School District is already facing staff reductions for next year -- plus another 12 to 15 teacher cuts under sequestration.

• The Erie School District in Pennsylvania estimates it will have to lay off a minimum of 10 elementary teachers if federal money is axed.

"Jobs are the biggest line item in their budgets," said Education Department spokesman Massie Ritsch. "It’s really hard to make up for it without cutting into personnel in some way."

Notice, though, that those districts expect to have to make those cuts. They haven’t made them yet.

One county in West Virginia

After his appearance on "Face the Nation," reporters pressed Duncan for examples of school districts where pinks slips had already been handed out.

He named Kanawha County in West Virginia, but insulated it in the caveat, "whether it’s all sequester-related, I don’t know."

The Washington Post sought to verify Duncan’s story by talking to Kanawha County school officials. Pam Padon, who directs the county’s federal programs, said 104 teachers had received transfer notices -- a necessary step before their positions can be eliminated.

"It’s not like we’re cutting people’s jobs at this point," Padon told the Post.

What’s more, those notices had more to do with a change in how West Virginia allocates federal funds designated for poor children, the Post reported.

Padon estimated that, of the 104 positions on notice, five or six jobs would ultimately be lost. "The major impact is not so much sequestration," she said. "Those five or six jobs would already be gone regardless of sequestration."

The Post’s Fact-Checker separately gave Duncan’s claim four Pinocchios, its worst rating.

Ritsch, the education department spokesman, urged us to call Kanawha Superintendent Ron Duerring. He told a totally different story than Padon had.

As far back as last fall, Duerring said, he directed his staff to start preparing for tighter conditions under sequestration.

"As it got closer to our personnel season (the time when school staff must be notified if their jobs are changing), it became very clear ... that it was going to happen.  But the next question was how much of a percentage was that going to be," Duerring said, adding that the federal cuts are likely to mean 14 layoffs next school year and even more the following year.

Asked to explain why Padon offered such a different version, Duerring said, "she was just answering what she thought."

He said he talked publicly about the effects of sequestration at school board meetings throughout the fall and in monthly meetings with principals. But he could provide no documentation that such preparations were being made that long ago.

Also, we found stories in two different local newspapers appear to support Padon’s version of why the 104 notices went out -- a change at the state level.

A Jan. 7, 2013, story in the Charleston Gazette said the county was preparing for the squeeze "because of a request by the state Department of Education, a new accountability system could be on the horizon for West Virginia schools that would require counties to set aside 20 percent of their budgets for their lowest-achieving schools." The statement was attributed to Padon.

And the Charleston Daily Mail reported that "the potential implementation of new Title I standards at the state level could mean putting about 100 teachers on ‘transfer’ status, Padon said."

Neither story -- nor others reporting on school board meetings last fall -- mentioned sequestration.

Our ruling

Duncan said that because of the threat of sequestration "there are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips." That conjures images of hundreds or even thousands of teachers who have already been fired.

But the lone example of actual pink slips is the West Virginia district. And officials there provide a contradictory explanation for why 104 teachers are being notified their jobs might be transferred, and eventually eliminated.

The other districts held up by education officials haven’t fired a single teacher because of sequestration. Ritsch, Duncan’s spokesman, said that distinction hardly matters: "Whether they’ve got a pink slip in hand or one is coming in two weeks, the basic point is the same -- their jobs are at risk."

Maybe so. But that’s not what Duncan said, which is that teachers right now are being shown the door. We rate his statement Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

CBS, "Face the Nation," Feb. 24, 2013, transcript via Nexis

Interview with Massie Ritsch, U.S. Department of Education spokesman, Feb. 28, 2013

Department of Education blog, "Sequestration Would Hurt Students, Teachers and Schools," Feb. 25, 2013

New York Times, "From the Schoolhouse to the Factory Floor, Girding for Cuts," Feb. 25, 2013, "Deeper cuts for Utica Schools if sequester goes into effect," Feb. 26, 2013

Erie Times-News, "Erie School District, other brace for sequestration cuts," Feb. 26, 2013

Washington Post, "Teacher pink slips claim by Duncan not backed by evidence," Feb. 28, 2013

Washington Post, "4 Pinocchios for Arne Duncan’s false claim of ‘pink slips’ for teachers," Feb. 28, 2013

Interview with Ron Duerring, Kanawha County Schools superintendent, Feb. 28, 2013

Charleston Gazette, "Federal cuts could hit Kanawha schools," Jan. 7, 2013

Charleston Daily Mail, "Federal funding uncertain for school programs," Jan. 8, 2013

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Arne Duncan says teachers are losing jobs because of sequestration

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