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Kanawha sequestration 'pink slip' claim makes national news

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Following a Washington Post story that challenges U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's claims of the effect of sequestration on the Kanawha County school system, Superintendent Ron Duerring now says the statement given to the Post from his office was "misunderstood."

On CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Duncan said that because of the nearing sequester, there are already teachers receiving pink slips. Days later, after being pressed for specific examples of districts facing those problems, Duncan pointed to Kanawha County, saying Title I and Head Start teachers were being cut in the district.

"Whether it's all sequester-related, I don't know, but these are teachers who are getting pink slips now," Duncan said during a White House briefing Wednesday.

But, no Kanawha teachers have been laid off. However, 40 Head Start teachers and 70 teachers at Title I schools -- those with a majority of students who qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals -- have been given transfer notices, which are required by state law to warn teachers they may have to change positions.

Pam Padon, director of federal programs and Title I for Kanawha County Schools, told the Post following Duncan's statement that those notices would result in five or six layoffs "regardless of sequestration."

"The major impact is not so much sequestration," Padon said.

After the Post ran the story saying that some sequester claims by the Obama administration have been exaggerated, and reporter Glenn Kessler, "The Fact Checker," gave Duncan a score of four "Pinocchios" for his false claim, Duerring spoke up, saying Padon was confused and that the sequester is very much a factor in the transfer notices.

"I think it was taken out of context. What Pam was saying was that we knew sequestering was coming -- we knew that there would be a percentage cut," Duerring said. "All year we had been hearing that it was coming, so we had been kind of watching our money very closely so that when the cut did come, the reductions wouldn't be as bad next year.

"We understood that it was going to happen, that there would be a percentage cut in the budget, but we didn't know how much it was going to be. I think that's only good financial planning."

Sending out transfer notices is "the first step to putting people on notice that they may be losing their job or that there may be a discontinuation of a program," he said.

On Thursday afternoon, Duerring personally signed his first tweet ever on the Kanawha County Schools Twitter account that read, "Sequester would [be] terrible [for] Kanawha, WV students. We already put teachers on notice. May [lose] jobs [because] of senseless cuts - Supt. Duerring."

The rest of the account's more than 300 tweets have all been either direct links to news stories or special announcements concerning schools.

Duncan then posted the image of Duerring's tweet to his Twitter account, challenging the Post's claims, saying, "Possible WV layoffs tied to sequester after all."

A representative from the U.S. Department of Education sent Post reporters an email Thursday afternoon saying she had talked with Duerring and that he "doesn't support" the Post's stories. The representative also suggested the Post call Duerring to "hear his side."

When asked if he was contacted or pressured by the U.S. department to backtrack the county's original statement, Duerring said, "That couldn't be farther from the truth.

"That has nothing to do with it. That has never had anything to do with it from day one. I have made this statement not only in principal meetings, but in board meetings -- that federal cuts were coming with sequestration. We are not backtracking," he said. "The issue is in this day in age, one of our statements made by a person here was misunderstood, and that was not done to be intentional, so because of that we had to set the record straight.

"In this whole new world of tweets, it's more viral. So, the only way to correct something anymore is to establish some kind of tweet or something so that people understand that it was misunderstood," Duerring said. "We have said all along that sequestration was a factor to put teachers on transfer."

Though Duncan's statement about teacher layoffs in Kanawha County was inaccurate, Duerring said he was right because "teachers are already feeling it."

"If we knew our budgets weren't going to have to be cut through sequestration, we might not have had to put so many of our teachers on transfer," Duerring said. "But, because we don't know the amount, but we do know it's coming, we couldn't take the chance of having all these people on the payroll and all of the sudden we don't have the funds to pay for it.

"We were supposed to know by March 1. Supposedly, that was the big day that sequestration was going to hit, and that we'd have more answers," he said. "It's not just Kanawha County -- it's every school system in the U.S. that's waiting to hear."

The Gazette first reported on the cuts to Kanawha County's Title I, Head Start and special education programs in January when the school board announced a potential deficit for the 2014 budget.

Then, Padon said a request by the state Department of Education for a new accountability system would require counties to set aside a portion of their budgets for the lowest-achieving schools, which would in turn cost the county more than $2 million of its Title I funding and force about 100 of those teachers to transfer.

The cutbacks to Head Start teachers were likely because for the first time, federal requirements made the state compete again for grant money instead of receiving it in a continuous cycle, like it has in the past, Padon said.

Duerring had mentioned the toll of sequestration on these programs in the past, but focused more on a decrease in Medicaid reimbursements and a cap on the county's excess levy.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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