Life for hundreds of teachers in the East Valley has become a tense waiting game. Just ask Yvette Christiansen. The first-grade teacher at Guerrero Elementary School was one of 208 teachers in the Mesa Unified School District who learned last week they will not have jobs next school year unless current budget projections improve.
Christiansen's entire first-grade team at Guerrero was hit with reduction-in-force notices.
"It's almost like you've checked out already. You're just going through the motions," she said.
Across the East Valley, the fate of public school teachers now rests mostly in the hands of school district governing board members and district administrators who are trying to sort through the muddy financial future for thousands of Arizona schools and students.
State and district officials know federal dollars are coming, and most believe they will help, at least in part, to address potential cuts the state must make in light of a $3.3 billion revenue shortfall for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. But many questions remain about how much help the stimulus dollars will actually provide.
Meanwhile, teachers are in limbo as they wait to find out if they and their colleagues will have jobs next school year.
"This week has been hard and emotional," Christiansen, 24, said Thursday night before a three-day weekend. "It's two weeks before district tests and, at the end of the day, it's about the students. That's why we got into this."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said districts are making drastic, panic-stricken reactions, issuing layoff notices to thousands last week from Tucson to Flagstaff.
On Friday, state public school groups sent Horne a letter expressing "shock and outrage" over his criticism. Districts said they're reacting to deep budget cuts lawmakers may make as they try to solve a huge state budget deficit. The groups told Horne that districts must "err on the side of caution," and pointed out that the federal stimulus money Horne says may fill the gaps may not come through.
Horne tried to calm school districts late last month, releasing what he knew about the federal stimulus dollars: $832 million that Gov. Jan Brewer will apply for and hopefully dole out to schools in the next few weeks. Schools are also in line to get millions for special education and for campuses where there are a high number of low-income students.
No guidelines are out yet, Horne said. But they are coming.
That wasn't enough, district officials said. They can't guarantee contracts to everyone next year on a hope they will get the necessary funding. State law requires districts to notify certified staff - including teachers, librarians, counselors and psychologists - by April 15 if they will have contracts the next school year.
"Needless to say, it's a very difficult time. It's very troublesome," longtime Mesa governing board member Mike Hughes said. "We're going to get through this somehow. We're having to plan with not all the answers, but we have to do that based on state protocol. As soon as we get a clearer picture, we'll do what we have to do."
Jaime Molera, former state superintendent of public instruction, was more blunt.
"It's kind of a mess," said Molera, now a lobbyist who represents Mesa Unified.
Molera said that if all the proposed cuts to Arizona schools for next school year were added up, along with the elimination of some utilities funds that may be lost and a sweep of end-of-year funds, there would be nearly half a billion dollars gone from schools.
So many unknowns with potentially huge impacts are making it difficult for school board members to make the decisions they were elected to make.
"How everything is going to settle down is still a moving target at this point," said Mesa governing board member Steve Peterson. "Once we get to the April 15 deadline, we will go back into a monitoring mode, waiting for things that might come down."
Teacher and staff cuts around the state would likely happen at some level for next school year even without pending budget cuts by the state Legislature, Mesa Republican Rep. Rich Crandall said. Crandall, a former Mesa school board member, is chairman of the House Education Committee.
It's the "perfect storm," culminating from declining enrollment, declining gambling revenue, declining sales tax revenue and declining state revenue - all of which help create budgets for schools, he said.
When only declining enrollment is considered, Mesa already expects to lose $10 million next year. The state also took back nearly $10 million from the district in January.
For next year, Mesa is making budget decisions based on a potential budget cut of about $60 million. Gilbert Unified School District is preparing for a $27 million shortfall. Even smaller districts like Queen Creek Unified are expecting enough of a shortfall to take steps to reduce staff.
"We've got to reduce the budget," Mesa's Hughes said. "We've got to wait to see what the Legislature does, but we still anticipate cuts" due to the enrollment drop.
So the waiting game includes keeping an eye out for state legislative action and those federal dollars, some of which have started to arrive in state coffers.
"I'm thankful the stimulus money has come in," said state Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler. "That's gonna help us in the short term. It's unfortunate those (reduction-in-force) letters have to go out, but they do.
"Not everybody who gets the letters will be laid off in my opinion. We're all working on this."
Mesa schools Superintendent Debra Duvall told governing board members last Tuesday that many of the teachers who received notices will end up with jobs in the fall.
She reiterated that during a meeting Christiansen and her fellow teachers attended Wednesday. Each teacher was told his or her rank on the district's seniority list to be called back to jobs. Christiansen said she is in the 80s of the 145 elementary school teachers. And those who remain on the list will be first in line for substitute jobs.
So while a pregnant Christiansen waits for her third daughter to be born in June, she'll also wait for news from her employer.
"Hopefully they will call a lot of us back," she said. "I feel I could go anywhere. I have 65 people ahead of me."