Gilbert Public Schools Heather Bartlett, a math teacher at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, speaks to the Gilbert Public Schools governing board on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Bartlett is one of 152 Gilbert Public Schools teachers who will have their positions eliminated at the end of the school year.
Gilbert Public Schools

Gilbert Public Schools will lay off 152 teachers amid declining enrollment and a looming financial cliff that could not be staved off with state and federal funding.

“It has been an honor to be your teacher, and I am grateful that I got to know each and every one of you.” 

Heather Bartlett spoke through tears as she addressed Gilbert Public Schools parents, students, teachers, and governing board members Tuesday night

Bartlett, a math teacher at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, was one of the 152 educators told by the district last week that their positions would be eliminated at the end of the school year.

The announcement comes on the heels of a year where many public schools saw dramatic drops in enrollment, which could signal dire financial consequences under the state’s funding model.

During an hour of emotional testimony Tuesday, the Gilbert school community asked for transparency on how the district decided to lay off teachers, and pleaded with them to hold off on eliminating positions until they had explored other funding sources.

“We’re in a pandemic,” said Heidi Leyva, who graduated from Gilbert High School in 2010. “I don’t think that this is an acceptable way to go, not during a pandemic, not ever.”

Despite the pleas from teachers, students, and parents, the district unanimously voted to approve the reduction in force.

In a presentation on its finances, the district said it was approaching a looming financial cliff that had not been staved off with promised state funding. It also said it could not rely on money from the federal American Rescue Plan or the voter-approved Proposition 208 tax hike intended to generate millions of dollars for schools.

Board member Reed Carr said that, while administrative positions have decreased in the district over the last several years, the district has seen an increase in that same period of the number of teachers it retains and employs. 

“Please know, we have cut costs everywhere but teachers,” he said.

But for Angela Philpot, an English Language Learner teacher at Desert Ridge Junior High and the treasurer of the Arizona Education Association teacher’s union, the district’s explanation of its finances only left her with more unanswered questions.

“I thought it couldn’t get any worse, and then sitting through that presentation actually made me feel worse,” Philpot told The Copper Courier.

‘Financial Cliff’ Looms In Gilbert

Gilbert Public Schools had just over 34,000 students enrolled during the 2020-2021 school year and saw a 5% decrease in enrollment, or approximately 1,600 students, from the previous year, according to numbers provided by the district.

That tracks with enrollment losses statewide. Last year, Arizona’s K-12 public schools were down approximately 38,000 students from the previous year, according to numbers from the Arizona Department of Education.

The declining enrollment poses a problem under Arizona’s school funding model, which allocates money for public and charter schools based on each student. A state audit found last year that Arizona school districts spent about $3,100 less per pupil than the national average, with a higher percentage of funds going toward things like food and transportation, with less money for instruction and administration.

But that money is still the primary source of funding for Gilbert’s budget, which will lose $10.2 million heading into next year, according to the district’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Bonnie Betz. 

“If we don’t have the enrollment to support (teachers), it would be difficult to maintain,” Betz said. “We could stem this off for probably a year, but we’d still be at a cliff.”

Last year, Arizona school districts were allocated $370 million from the Enrollment Stability Grant, federal CARES Act money meant to stabilize school budgets during a volatile school year with declining enrollment. 

But Arizona school districts needed well over $600 million to keep the promises made by Governor Doug Ducey, according to Arizona schools’ Superintendent Kathy Hoffman. As a result, some schools saw less money than what was initially promised, according to The Arizona Republic.

Gilbert, which projected a budget drop of 10% in November amid declining student enrollment, asked for $30 million from the state to recoup the losses. They received just over $14 million under the state grant, according to Betz.

Hoffman said in a statement that the state had failed to fulfill its promises, leaving some districts to deal with the repercussions.

“Without long-term, predictable, on-going state funding, many public schools will not be able to sustain their operations and provide a full range of services to students and families in their communities,” Hoffman wrote. “I continue to call on Governor Ducey and state lawmakers to fully fund every public school.”

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment about the situation in Gilbert Public Schools and the level of funding allocated to districts through the Enrollment Stability Grant.

In November, voters also approved Prop. 208, a tax hike that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Arizona schools, but that money will not be available for districts to use until 2022, according to Betz.

Gov. Ducey and other state legislators have also made it clear in recent weeks that they intend to pursue tax cuts that would undermine Prop. 208. If the legislature passes measures to exclude small business owners from the tax hike, the amount of available funding for districts would decrease by more than half its intended amount, Betz said.

Money from the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law last month, would also not be available to schools until the end of April. Betz said 20% of the money is required to be used on summer school and tutoring.

Philpot questioned why the remaining 80% of the federal relief money couldn’t be used to retain teachers and hire support staff. 

Betz said that the money Gilbert received from the first two federal relief packages—roughly $12 million—was spent to offset staff salaries, pay for online schooling, and fund pandemic mitigation efforts like buying cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

But federal relief is one-time money that doesn’t account for ongoing expenses like teacher salaries, Betz said, and while the district has a tremendous amount of one-time funding available, relying on it could result in a financial cliff where the district has more expenses than money to fund them. 

School officials across the country have said the federal money isn’t enough to make up for losses that state and local budgets have suffered, according to reporting from The New York Times.

While Hoffman and other education advocates have called on the state to use its billion-dollar rainy day fund and budget surplus to fully fund Arizona schools, Ducey has said the state would “not be funding empty seats” in schools.

“Any mitigation strategy that we would come up with would be subject to one-time (funds),” Betz said Tuesday. “We would be delaying the inevitable.”

How Were Gilbert Teachers Evaluated for Layoffs?

Several teachers and community members sought more transparency from the district about how teachers were chosen for the reduction in force.

Last Friday, Philpot said she and a handful of other educators were called into a testing room during the final few minutes of the day. She had no idea what to expect late on a Friday afternoon. 

Once there, the teachers were read a script by their principal, who informed them their contracts were not being renewed due to declining enrollment. They were told they could not ask questions at the time. 

Philpot said she sat in the room stunned, and that some educators stormed out in disgust. 

“It didn’t have to be handled that way,” she said.

The district said it formed a committee to discuss teacher layoffs in January of this year. In that time, Philpot said teachers were never once clued in that layoffs could be coming.

It was a far cry from the reductions in force that took place in Apache Junction in 2010, where Philpot was teaching during the Great Recession. There, she said educators were involved in the layoff process, outlining their own qualifications and contributions to the district, before finally learning whether or not their positions were ultimately eliminated.

“Everybody knew. You had time to do something,” she said. “This process…nobody knew.”

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Gilbert Superintendent Shane McCord apologized for the manner in which the current round of layoffs was communicated to teachers.

“As we discussed how to navigate this process with our attorney, we were advised to be as concise as possible and stick to our policy,” McCord said. “The message that was delivered was cold and sterile. That was never the intention, but nonetheless, that’s how it was given, and it was received.”

The district decided to lay off employees based on a rubric that had principals assign scores to teachers, awarding points based on several criteria, which included creating an environment of respect, professional development, and promoting campus culture. Teachers who scored below a certain point threshold were ultimately let go.

Some of the criteria that labeled a teacher as “ineffective” included gossiping or discussing “district or school decisions/concerns publicly.”

Philpot called the metric “disheartening.”

“So many of us did voice what our opinions were, whether to stay in-person, or go hybrid, or follow the metrics,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want to know what your employees are thinking? I don’t know why our district wouldn’t want that honest feedback.”

District spokesperson Dawn Antestenis said that the verbiage used in the rubric correlates to existing governing board policies used within the district regarding staff conduct and employee use of digital communications. 

Katarina Nall, a senior at Mesquite High School in Gilbert, said at the meeting that the district was laying off teachers like Marla Tretta-Zachary, the only art teacher at Mesquite High School, and someone “whose passion for creativity coats the walls of the B building.”

Nall said the district was also letting go of Kristen Thomasson, the school’s only American Sign Language teacher, who “instilled in her students a love of an entire language and culture.”

“You’re thinking of these teachers that you’re firing as only numbers and part of your budget,” Nall said. “When I look to who is being laid off at my school…they are the most certified teachers at our school. They are the best of us.”

The loss of beloved teachers was a sentiment echoed by other students, parents, and teachers throughout the meeting.

Amy Rowe, a special education teacher at Gilbert High School, said the district was laying off certified teachers with decades of experience in the district and creating vacancies in already understaffed departments like special education.

“We are (laying off) teachers who are dual-certified, AP teachers, special education teachers, ELL teachers, math teachers at the secondary level, and people who have developed programs on campuses,” Rowe said. “We cannot replace these people.”

Antestenis said the district was unable to provide information about teachers who were laid off, including information related to their years of service in the district or salaries.

The district also said at the meeting that it could not factor seniority or tenure into its decisions due to a 2009 state law change that prohibits districts from doing so.

Through tears, Bartlett—the Campo Verde math teacher—asked the governing board to see her rubric so that she could find out “where she fell short” as an educator.

Amber Franco, president of the Gilbert teacher’s union, told The Copper Courier that teachers who were laid off would be allowed to see their individual evaluations from principals.

More Districts At ‘Risk’ of Similar Decisions?

The move in Gilbert could set a precedent for districts across the state who have seen a drop in enrollment.

Part of that slide is accounted for in the move from traditional K-12 public schools to charter schools.

Traditional public school districts saw a loss of approximately 6%, or 55,000 students, from last year, while charter schools saw a 9% increase in enrollment, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Betz said that neighboring districts like Chandler Unified and Mesa Public Schools had lost 2,720 and 3,905 students, respectively. 

One of the few districts who had seen increased enrollment was Queen Creek Unified District, now the most rapidly growing school district in the state, according to Betz. Queen Creek was one of the first districts to reopen for in-person classes in the fall, prompting mass teacher resignations.

Many families have also moved to homeschool their students amid the pandemic.

From July to December of last year, the number of families in Maricopa County who said they planned to homeschool more than tripled from the same period in 2019, according to numbers from the Maricopa County School Superintendent’s Office.

But Philpot said the decision to lay off teachers in Gilbert was premature.

Across the country, as many as 3 million students may have not attended school altogether since pandemic-related closures began in March, according to Bellwether Education Partners, an education reform nonprofit focused on at-risk student populations.

With vaccinations on the rise, Philpot said she expected many students would return to Gilbert Public Schools in the fall. 

Carr, the Gilbert board member, said the district could not count on the fact that students would return in the fall. Doing so could force the district to lay off teachers in the middle of the year or to furlough or reduce all district employees’ salaries, Betz said.

“If we’re wrong on that call, the impact to the individuals affected becomes much more enormous, because you have no notice, you have no timing, you have no opportunity to find alternative employment,” Carr said. “It magnifies the effect of this decision on the actual individuals.”

In a statement Monday, the Arizona Education Association said more districts risked similar decisions to lay off teachers as lawmakers continue to divest public education in favor of tax cuts.

“Realize that laying off teachers is a short-sighted solution that will cause long-term problems for the community,” the teacher’s union said in its statement. “There are other ways to address budget shortfalls than letting go of the very people we need educating our students.”

Philpot also expressed concern about the precedent Gilbert’s decision would set for other districts across the state facing similar financial challenges. 

“This has been a year like no other in the history of education,” she said. “With teachers now having to leave their students and further provide instability to students who have been through so much emotional turmoil…it’s just adding more trauma.

“I hope other districts don’t follow that suit,” she said. “If there’s a decision to use one-time money to weather this storm for one more year, that they would choose human capital.”

Arizona’s Teacher Shortage Persists

The Gilbert layoffs come in the middle of a yearslong teacher shortage throughout the state.

For six years, the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association has surveyed school districts and charter schools to assess vacant teacher positions throughout the state. ASPAA surveyed 200 Arizona school districts and charter schools for this year’s study.

ASPAA found that 27% of teacher vacancies in Arizona were unfilled this year, while 47% of the vacancies were filled by teachers who do not meet the state’s standard certification requirements.

“Arizona teacher pay remains one of the lowest in the country, even with the recent education budget increase,” ASPAA said in a press release. “The inability to offer competitive salaries severely limits public schools from attracting the best and the brightest. Arizona’s leaders must make a collective effort to ensure the recruitment and retention of effective teachers through increased funding and improved working conditions.”

Hoffman echoed similar sentiments, saying that a state with one of the worst teacher shortages “should not be making headlines for teacher layoffs.”

“Again, there is simply no excuse for not fully funding public schools,” Hoffman wrote in a statement.

For Philpot, the decision to eliminate teachers in Gilbert means she will have to say a premature goodbye to her students, who are still in the process of developing their English language skills and among the most vulnerable in the district. 

“I’ll just have to find another place, and I know that I will,” she said through tears. “I love these kids. In Gilbert, I just feel like my students are invisible, and ignored, and not heard like they should be. I worry that they won’t get that in somebody else.”

Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.