We’re told there are layoffs coming. But how many people will be laid off? Who will they be? And will you or your child’s teacher be among them?

“I wish I had more money and I wish I had more clarity,” was Chancellor Joel Klein’s answer to these questions a few weeks ago, speaking to principals by conference call.

The process of laying off teachers in New York City is so complex that few people have clear answers right now. But after studying the state law that sets teacher hiring and firing rules, talking to union and city officials, and looking back to the 1970s — the last time a economic crisis forced thousands of teacher layoffs — I have some clues. Here are answers to questions I’ve heard from parents and teachers (send more!).

Will there be layoffs?
Several scenarios exist that could reduce — but probably not eliminate — the number of layoffs.

In its leaderless, unpredictable state, Albany could rewrite the budget forecast as I type these words. Governor Paterson’s budget, and the budget passed in the Senate, cut about $500 million from New York City schools. When you add in the city’s increased operating costs, the losses come to $750 million. Klein has translated that to mean roughly 6,400 lost teaching jobs next year. Of that, 2,000 would be lost when teachers retire or move and the city plans to cut the other 4,400 through layoffs.

If the State Assembly decreases the education cut, the layoff numbers could go down. Another possibility is that the city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, could cut a deal that would freeze teacher salaries in exchange for fewer layoffs. And yet another unpredictable element is S. 3206, the Keep Our Educators Working Act. Sponsored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and backed by the Obama White House, the bill would devote $23 billion to helping states avoid teacher layoffs. If Congress approves the bill, New York City would get a $400 million lifeline.

How will the city decide which teachers lose their jobs?

Rules for layoffs were first written into New York’s education law in 1976. They say:

Whenever a teaching position is abolished under this chapter, the services of the person holding a position within the tenure area of the position which is to be abolished who has the least seniority in the city school district, including all full-time equivalent substitute service and all full-time equivalent service as a paraprofessional, shall be discontinued, provided that the services of a person who has acquired tenure within such tenure area shall not be discontinued if another person holding a position within such tenure area has not acquired tenure.

You mean you didn’t understand that?
The law means that the city has to lay off teachers based on how recently they were hired, with some leeway. Rather than taking all the most recent hires and firing them without considering what subject they teach, the law allows officials to make layoffs according to subject area.

Hypothetically, hundreds of elementary school classroom teachers could lose their jobs, but only a dozen science teachers could be laid off and almost no special education teachers would have to go. Right now, city education officials are puzzling over exactly how deeply to cut from each kind of position.

One way to decide which subjects to cut the most would be to let principals decide which positions they can live without. But the city has calculated that these decisions could take far too long to make, and so officials are instead making projections themselves.

According to a source, officials will calculate how many teachers will have to be cut from each subject area by studying schools’ past behavior and looking at hiring trends.

Does where I teach matter?
These cuts will happen on a citywide basis. This means that if the city estimates it has to cut 500 middle school social studies positions, the middle school social studies teachers who will lose their jobs are the 500 newest hires across all five boroughs. It doesn’t matter if your principal likes you and can afford to keep you on staff; you’re the rookie and you’ve got to go.

New schools that hired their entire staff in the last two years are likely to be hit the hardest by layoffs. And of all the boroughs, the Bronx would suffer the most as it employs many of the city’s most recent hires.

City officials have predicted that elementary school classroom teachers are likely to bear the brunt of the cuts. They’ve also said that teachers working in hard-to-staff subjects — like high school special education or chemistry — will probably see fewer layoffs.

But Klein keeps saying he wants to lay off teachers based on their ability. Could that happen?
Even the most diehard, anti-seniority-based layoffs city officials currently view this as a pipe dream. The law is the law, and there aren’t any signs this will change in the next few weeks.

Who’s going to be teaching my child next year?
In the worst case budget scenario, if your child’s teacher was hired in the last two years and teaches a subject that’s not in high demand, chances are good that she will lose her job. Another teacher may take her place if the school can afford to fill the vacancy, in which case the newly arrived teacher will be more senior and come from another school that either couldn’t afford him or that he left of his own volition.

If your school’s principal can’t stretch the budget to fill the vacancy, class sizes will probably rise. If it’s a high school, the principal may have to drop certain classes from the school’s offerings.

When will I know if I’m being laid off?
Department of Education officials hope to give principals their budgets for next year by June 1, so you could find out shortly afterward that your position has been eliminated at your school. But that doesn’t mean you’ve been laid off.

The teachers union contract says you have to be told about layoffs on or near June 15, but you shouldn’t view that as a hard deadline. If any of the moving parts change — if Albany alters the budget cut or if the federal government passes the education bailout bill — the news may come quite a bit later.

If I’m a teacher and I am laid off, do I get severance pay?
No. You will be paid through the summer and for the vacation days and sick days you didn’t use.

How long will my health insurance last?
Your city health insurance will expire 90 days from the day you are laid off. At that point, you can extend your health benefits with COBRA, which allows you to keep your insurance temporarily but requires you to pay the entire premium. It’s cheaper than getting individual health insurance.

In the words of one school official: “Go see your doctor; go to the dentist; go to the gynecologist, do it all.”

What happens if I’m laid off and then economic conditions improve?
The city has to keep what’s known as a “recall list” of all the teachers who’ve been laid off by order of seniority within their subject area. If jobs become available, the city can recall you. This process can be just as chaotic as layoffs are because, like layoffs, recalling is done on a citywide scale. This means that if you were laid off from a job in the Bronx you could be recalled and offered first rights to a job in Staten Island, even if your old school has an opening in your license area and wants to hire you back. First rights to that job could go to another teacher who’s ahead of you in the recall line.

In the mid-1970s, the last time layoffs of this scale were carried out, the city laid off 15,000 teachers and then tried to recall 10,000 of them. Only 3,000 ever returned to the system.

Send more questions to tips@gothamschools.org.