Walter Reed Middle School music teachers Stephen McDonough and Jessica Johnson were both given pink slips in March after the school's music program won a prestigious Bravo.
In June, as Jessica Johnson was conducting the 6th grade band during Walter Reed Middle School's graduation, the music teacher was uncertain about the future.
In March, only days after Walter Reed's music program had won a prestigious Bravo Award from the LA Music Center, two of the three teachers in the music program received layoff notices.
Johnson and the program's music department chair, Stephen McDonough, were among the 5,524 teachers and staff to receive reduction-in-force (RIF) notices from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The result of a combined budget shortfall and government cutbacks from Sacramento, the notices informed teachers and staff that they may not have a job after the school year ends.
While RIF notices have become an annual rite of spring for educators, this year, the depth of the district's financial woes was evident by the fact that even teachers with eight-plus years of experience, such as Johnson and McDonough, made the district's list.
After the notices are sent, LAUSD begins another annual process of rescinding as many of the layoff notices as its final budget permits. That was the case for McDonough; his RIF was rescinded weeks before the school year ended -- not so for Johnson, who even though her job was in limbo, had another distraction to occupy her focus.
"Having my wedding this summer was really good for me emotionally because it gave me something amazing in my life to look forward to," said Johnson. "To not have to sit every day and wait and wait and wait, and wonder if I was going to be rehired."
She was married in July, but didn't find out her fate until August when she returned from her honeymoon in Iceland.
"I found out that I had a job because I got a paycheck," she said with a wide smile.
"It's great the team is together," said McDonough, happy that the music program that has earned the community's support and praise over the years was intact.
"That's the way it's supposed to be. We've spent nine years together building this whole thing and working on this," said McDonough.
McDonough has been a passionate proponent of music education serving as a gateway to successful learning.
"I think [what's needed is] a pro-active approach to accepting music as the strongest complimentary piece to a solid education," he said. "What's required of a student, it goes so much deeper than 'are they connecting with their art?'"
He points to music education as a tool for developing discipline, study habits and a sense of community and leadership that students take from their music classes and apply to their traditional subjects.
"If you can take music education, and have that be one of the things you're going to hold up to the public and say 'this is something we're going to make sure is quality,' I guarantee those schools are going to rise and get better," said McDonough.
As for LAUSD's final layoff numbers, of the 5,524 RIF notices sent out in the spring, 1,207 teachers and support personnel are awaiting re-employment.
Vivian Ekchian, LAUSD's Chief Human Resources Officer, credits the success to labor negotiations and the willingness of employees to sacrifice furlough days in order to save the jobs of their colleagues.
"I was deliriously happy," Ekchian said. "I wasn't surprised, because we were working on a 20-hours-a-day basis in order to make that happen. Am I disappointed that we weren't able to save every person? Yes, but we know that we did the best we could under the circumstances under the budget we possess."
Ekchian points out that the district faced multiple obstacles as it tried to save as many positions as possible. It was predetermined that due to lower student enrollment, funding for nearly 700 positions would be lost.
"Plus the ending of stimulus funding, we had almost 1,000 certificated positions that were created out of that funding," she said. "So we were very pleasantly surprised by the fact that the number of individuals on the re-employment list is lower than the numbers we anticipated."
What are the prospects of more pink slips this coming spring?
"If the budget situation does not change, it would not be surprising to me if we had lay-offs again, certainly we'll do all we can not to have them, but it all depends on the budget," said Ekchian.
Looking back on her eventful summer, newlywed Johnson said the support she received from Walter Reed Middle School's parents and community helped her through her ordeal.
"The community drawing focus on us and the program really made a difference," she said. "It made a difference in the way that I felt and the value that I felt, because getting the RIF made me feel very much not valued."