LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Unified teacher Mike Newman sighed when he saw the now familiar certified letter in his mailbox last month – a pink slip, for the fourth year in a row.
"Here we go again," said Newman, a 14-year classroom veteran who's had his previous three layoffs rescinded and hopes for the same this year. "We keep thinking it'll get better sooner or later, but it's not."
A new term is being bandied about in California schools these days – "the RIFing season," which refers to the "reduction in force" letters notifying teachers they may be laid off at the end of the school year.
Some want the annual practice, which gives teachers advance notice that their jobs are in jeopardy depending on the outcome of the state budget debate, changed because it unnecessarily saps morale and incurs administrative expenses since most of those employees will not be laid off.
School districts sent out 20,000 warning notices in March – the fourth consecutive year of mass cuts due to continued state funding shortfalls, but if the past three years are anything to go by, roughly a quarter of those teachers will actually lose their jobs.
"This is a process that doesn't need to be happening," said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union for the Los Angeles Unified School District where 9,500 educators received layoff notices in March. "This is a quarter of our teachers. The district couldn't operate without a quarter of its teachers. They never should've issued that number."
In a survey of 230 school districts, the state Legislative Analyst's Office found that roughly 75 percent of teachers who received layoff warnings were either never laid off or laid off and called back to work, according to a 27-page report that recommended changes in the layoff process.
That left, however, some 32,000 teachers who did lose their jobs over the past three years, 11 percent of the state's teacher workforce.
Districts say they have little choice but to overestimate the number of layoffs because state-mandated deadlines in the budgeting process leave them in financial limbo until late in the school year.
LAUSD's Chief Human Resources Officer Vivian Ekchian acknowledged that the layoff notices cause emotional upheavals for employees and incur expenditures that could be used to save teaching positions, but the district must comply with the law.
"It's very difficult to maintain stability not knowing how many teachers we can employ," she said. "A lot of these teachers will not be laid off."
In California, teachers are laid off by seniority. Typically, districts start from the most recently hired and work up the list. Sometimes, teachers can get out of being laid off if they have qualifications in an area with a teacher shortage, such as special education or math and science, or are qualified to teach in multiple subjects and age ranges.
Under state law, districts must notify teachers by March 15 that they could lose their jobs as of June 30.
Those figures are based on the state's preliminary budget issued in January. But by the time the budget goes through typical Sacramento horse-trading, it can be altered substantially.
In May, districts receive an update on state funding figures, and they must issue final layoff notices by May 15. But the numbers can still change until the budget is adopted. In some years, political dickering has delayed the budget well beyond the July 1 fiscal year start.
The school districts err on the side of caution. They send out too many layoff notices and rescind them, rather than not having enough money to go round or using the August 1 loophole of emergency layoffs that can be employed if revenue differs more than 2 percent than budgeted.
Next school year, districts face additional midyear cuts if voters do not approve tax initiatives that would boost state revenue.
The uncertainty creates tumult in schools.
"It's hard for teachers to keep up the energy we need in the classroom," said Veronica Melvin, executive director of LA's Promise, which runs three LAUSD schools.
Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization that runs 15 LAUSD schools, last year started an outreach project to pink-slipped teachers after seeing morale devastated year after year.
Teams hold after-school informational meetings for pink-slipped teachers, who this year number 153, and staffers comb through each teacher's file to find credentials that could exempt them from layoff, such as qualifications to teach multiple subjects and ages, or help them get those credentials, or file appeals. They try to keep talented but discouraged teachers from moving out of state or leaving the profession.
"I've seen teachers who have cried," said Phyllis Bradford, senior director of human resources. "Others have moved out of state, gone back to school. It's a very depressing time."
The process is also costly. The Legislative Analyst's Office calculated that districts spent $14 million on administrative costs last year, about $700 per noticed teacher, including sending notices by certified mail and appeal hearings before an administrative law judge. The Legislative Analyst's Office suggested the hearings be replaced by a review by an administrative law judge.
The Legislative Analyst's Office also recommended the layoff notification date be pushed back to May 15, with Aug.1 as the final layoff date. Districts also should be allowed to lay off employees on an emergency basis throughout the year, it said.
So far, efforts to change the dates have gone nowhere.
In February, Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, prepared a bill at the behest of the San Diego Unified School District to push the layoff notification deadline to June 15 and final layoffs to Aug. 15, but the bill died after failing to muster support from the California Teachers Association.
Block said he doesn't foresee further impetus in Sacramento to change the laws.
"My hope is we won't have to worry so much about pink slip dates because we won't have pink slips," he said. "We want to focus on turning around the economy."
California Teacher Association President Dean Vogel said changing dates won't help the teachers who are laid off and need time to prepare. Instead, the teachers union is throwing its muscle into a November ballot initiative, the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act, that would raise taxes on the wealthy to restore funding to schools, as well as police and fire services.
"The solution is to get more money into the general fund," he said.
In the meantime, teacher frustration is growing.
Some see the layoff notices as a negotiating ploy by districts to get teachers to sign off on pay cuts.
"It's really a game to get us to agree to furlough days," said Brooke Wilkerson, an instructional coach at a San Fernando Valley elementary school who's on her fourth pink slip.
Christine Aguilar, an eight-year Los Angeles elementary school teacher who's received pink slips for three years in a row, fears the seniority list is catching up to her as more junior employees are laid off each year.
"Every year, I think `will this be the year I'm not rescinded? Will it be my turn?'" she said. "This is just hanging over me."