Originally published August 23, 2010 at 10:05 PM | Page modified August 24, 2010 at 12:31 AM

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The Truth Needle | The Seattle Times has launched a new feature to help voters discern fact from fiction between now and the November election. The Truth Needle will examine the claims of candidates and campaigns in the top races and decide whether they are true or false.

Truth Needle | False: Murray's statement about teachers' jobs

Sen. Patty Murray said earlier this month that 3,000 teaching jobs in Washington state were at risk in the fall without new federal aid that she helped pushed through Congress.

The claim: Sen. Patty Murray said this month that 3,000 teaching jobs in Washington state were at risk in the fall without new federal aid that she helped pushed through Congress.

What we found: That's not the case. In fact, state officials say school budgets largely are set by now. Any teachers subject to layoffs are likely already gone, and those with new contracts can't be laid off this school year, according to the governor's budget office.

School districts do want the money. There's some hope it can be used to help offset across-the-board cuts that Gov. Chris Gregoire expects to announce this fall. And many school districts want to bank the bulk of any federal money received until next school year, when even bigger budget cuts are expected.

But Murray painted a different picture on the Senate floor this month when she pushed for lawmakers to approve $26 billion in federal aid to the states, including $10 billion in additional funding for public schools. Washington state is expected to receive about $205 million to distribute to school systems.

"In my home state, nearly 3,000 jobs are at risk," said Murray, who's running for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. "That means 3,000 teachers in Washington state who are right now in limbo. Who are spending this summer not knowing if they'll return to a classroom or a pink slip in the fall."

State law, however, requires districts to notify teachers of layoffs in mid-May, and budgets typically are set by July. Teachers with new contracts are not in danger of losing their jobs this school year if there are more budget cuts. State law prevents districts from laying off teachers until their contracts expire, according to the governor's budget office.

Also, it doesn't appear that anywhere close to 3,000 teachers have been laid off during the past two years. A survey by the state Professional Educator Standards Board found that school districts in 2009 sent out 2,061 layoff notices to teachers but ended up retaining 87 percent of them. So, in the end, around 270 teachers actually were laid off.

So far this year, 445 teachers have received layoff notices. It's not clear how many, if any, will be hired back. But even if all are laid off, only about 700 teachers will have lost their jobs during the past two years.

In addition to laid-off teachers, around 1,600 teaching positions were lost through attrition and left unfilled in the 2009-10 school year, according to the Professional Educator Standards Board. Figures are not available for this year. School districts could use the federal aid to hire back teachers who have been laid off, or hire new teachers.

Murray's office released a statement Friday saying the senator's floor speech was based on conversations with educators and projections from a number of sources including the Department of Education, the National Education Association and the Washington Education Association regarding the number of jobs at risk.

"The full depth and breadth of the job impact this investment will have won't be evident for some time," Murray spokesman Matt McAlvanah said in the statement. "But what is clear right now, and what teachers, administrators and state education officials have all said, is that this funding will help Washington state's students. This funding will help to reduce class sizes, provide more individual attention, and will help ensure that Washington's schoolchildren aren't the ones bearing the burden of state budget shortfalls.

"It is a fully offset bill that will not only help teachers, but also the critical support staff that keep our schools running, at a time when we can't afford any more lost jobs."


One Department of Education report cited by Murray's office showed the number of jobs the federal aid would support for each state. The report estimated the money could fund 3,300 education jobs in Washington state by dividing the amount of money awarded by the average salary for teachers. In other words, the agency estimated how many teachers could be hired with the money, not how many jobs were at risk.

The federal money could prove important to schools next year because the state is facing at least a $3 billion shortfall and school districts fear more deep cuts are coming. That's why many are contemplating holding on to the money, if possible.

"I'd want to look hard at banking those dollars to soften the impact in 2012," said Duggan Harman, executive director of finance for Seattle Public Schools. "We have a projected shortfall of $28 million."

Reported and written by staff reporter Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or

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