Cut from the Job

By Elissa Stolman

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At the Tamalpais Union High School District board meeting on May 11, staff, students, parents, and community members from across the district gathered at Redwood High School to vocally oppose the elimination of 14 positions and potentially 28 members of the district’s classified staff.The Tamalpais Union High School District’s board meeting on May 11 was unusually packed and tense. Staff, students, parents, and community members from across the district gathered at Redwood High School to vocally oppose the elimination of 14 of the district’s classified staff positions. Many people spoke to the board, pleading for them to rethink their votes and find alternative ways to meet the required budget cuts for the 2010-2011 school year. Applause, hissing, and shouted comments reached a crescendo after the board unanimously passed the resolution and the majority of the audience filed out of the conference center in disgust.

“This is the saddest day that ever was,” Britt Block, Tamalpais Federation of Teachers (TFT) Union President and Redwood drama teacher, told the Board of Trustees as she choked back tears.

“What you are teaching us about community is despicable,” Redwood High School senior Mitchell Davidovitz said, initiating a round of applause.

“The situation we face tonight is not what any of us want,” board president Bob Walter told the crowded conference center. “We recognize that every single person is doing important work.”

Before passing Resolution 20 to reduce classified services for the 2010-2011 school year, the board allowed the student representatives from Tam, Drake, Redwood, Tamiscal and San Andreas to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down advisory vote on the resolution. The students unanimously showed the board members thumbs-down, once again evoking applause from the audience behind them.

“This was kind of a last resort; I don’t think anyone wanted to do it,” Tam senior and student representative to the board Max Perrey said. “I obviously would not have done it, and the other student [representatives] I think felt the same way. There could be other ways to cut $1 million out of the budget.”

Pursuant to Resolution 20, 19.638 full-time equivalent positions of the classified staff, which includes clerks, secretaries, and library specialists, were eliminated. The resolution cut $1 million of costs out of the district’s goal to reduce the $55 million budget by $2.7 million. In addition, the entire staff of the school district has lost at least two paid days, many part-time teachers have been asked return full time or resign, certain positions have been combined, and the core literacy portfolio graduation requirement has been postponed.

The cuts are an attempt to create a balanced budget for the 2010-2011 school year in the face of a looming deficit. The district published a Finance and Facilities FAQ on the district website in which they outlined three reasons for the budget deficit: a .25 percent decrease in revenues from local property tax, a reduction in categorical and adult education basic aid funding from the state, and increases in operating expenditures like salaries, benefits, and utilities. According to the May 2010 staff budget update, the district faces a combined $6,972,198 deficit from the 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012 school years.

Tam’s receptionist Allison Krivoruchko, service center specialist Barbara Rousseau, registrar Joanie Ross, counseling clerk Suzanne Ledbetter, assistant principal’s secretary and athletic clerk Jackie Hamilton, and district nurse Cheri Sandberg will not return to the school next year because Resolution 20 effectively eliminated their positions.

Many district employees have responded to the board’s decision to eliminate 28 members of the classified staff with a mixture of confusion, anger, remorse, and frustration.

“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” Tam English teacher Pru Starr said. “I just see it’s horrific and it’s awful and I’m sorry that we have to be in this situation. I’ve been working here for 25 years and I’ve never seen it so bad.”

“I think a lot of people felt there wasn’t as great an effort to find other places to cut,” Perrey said.

In March, staff members were given the opportunity to fill out and turn in budget reduction idea forms. The California School Employees Association (CSEA), the union for the classified staff, submitted a list of budget reduction ideas to the board that addressed expenditures such as teacher mentors for new teachers, health benefits, instructional duties and assessments, contract days, paper and electricity consumption, textbook bills, and a section titled “WE ARE ADULTS” that asked the board to save money by spending less on food and water for the staff. “Stop feeding us,” the list read.“We’re adults. We can bring our own lunches.”

An idea list submitted by a teacher offered four suggestions, including cutting staff at the district level before classified employees, scrapping the newly-proposed Teacher Leadership Program, and spending $1 million of the $17 million budget reserve, which could save, according to the teacher, 24 classified jobs.

The new Teacher Leadership Program combines the Department Chairs with teacher mentors for new teachers and provides one teacher leader straightforward access to the district administrators. The board reported on May 11 that the Teacher Leadership Program wouldn’t cost extra money by combining positions even though those promoted to Teacher Leadership positions would receive a pay raise and would cost the district about $30,000 per teacher leader.

“We want to take part in decision making,” the list read. “But how could we accept a position that costs roughly $30,000 PER PERSON…when our colleagues’ jobs have been discontinued?”

“There is no new money being allocated from the budget to pay for the teacher leadership,” Assistant Superintendent of Finances and Facilities Lori Parrish said. “It’s just a restructuring, we aren’t adding to our expenses.”

In addition, the school district eliminated the director for the Core Literacy Portfolio program, a staple graduation requirement assigned sophomore year that assesses a student’s ability to read and write, so the program will be suspended until the 2011-2012 school year, when administrators hope it will be ready to run online. Tam assistant principal Corbett Elsen said the program is on hold for a year to improve it and save the costs associated with running the program, roughly $90,000 per year.

The board rejected suggestions to spend some of the budget reserve because they wished to hold onto their reserves in case the district loses funding from the state altogether. Although the state of California requires that school districts only keep 2 percent of their budget for reserves, the office of superintendent Laurie Kimbrel published in the May 2010 staff budget update that they need 27 percent of the budget as a “safety net” in case the state discontinues funding the district. “If basic aid were to be eliminated or changed, our reserve would allow us to have one year to dismantle our programs and create a new reality for our students and community,” the budget update read.

According to a compilation of information from 2009-2010 budget documents assembled by Drake math teacher Michelle Lackney that compared 12 other basic aid districts’ reserves, the Tamalpais district exceeds the other districts’ reserves by at least 4.4 percent of the total annual budget. Most districts cited keep an average of 11.13 percent of their budget for reserves; the Tamalpais district keeps 27.8 percent of the budget as reserve funds.

According to Parrish, the Tam district’s reserves are comparable to state revenues the district receives in one year, so the district would have one year to restructure programs. Parrish said the “experts that [the district] relies on” to make decisions about the budget reserve suggest keeping enough to run the district for two to three years instead of just one. Instead of increasing the reserves as recommended, surplus from last year will be used to offset losses for next year. “We would have had to cut another $1,263,000 for next year had the board not allocated that surplus [for next year’s losses],” Parrish said

Walter and Parrish both felt that the threat of losing state funding is real. “I think it’s a matter of time before there’s a new study and a new lawsuit out that is attacking adequacy of funding and restructuring the financial allocation of funds to school districts,” Parrish said. “We had Senator Joe Simitian tell us that there is a definite threat.”

“That’s been scary ever since I’ve been on the board, which is going on eight or nine years now,” Walter said. “If something like that were to happen, the community would have to really come together.”

CSEA Union President Bill Bridges compiled a list of budget reduction suggestions for the district in February, when the district began to solicit ideas from staff. According to Tam budget secretary Leslie Holt, the suggestions, which included more thorough textbook and equipment inventory, finding cheaper office supply vendors, reducing staff development days, and decreasing the use of paper and utilities, could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars saved for the district.

“We don’t enforce book bills,” Holt said. “We don’t collect money for lost textbooks. There’s no enforcement of that whatsoever. We don’t even enforce the teachers even though it’s in their contract. I would say, at Tam, we have about 30-35% percent compliance. The rest of the teachers don’t even use the system or the software because they couldn’t be bothered.”

“I absolutely think that [some staff-generated proposals] are alternative viable options,” Tam Principal Tom Drescher said. “I know that the district was looking for viable ways to [cut expenditures], but this is negotiated with the CSEA, and so a lot of great ideas were put forward to the district. It’s whether or not they get agreed upon. If they’re not agreed upon, the district has no recourse but to make certain decisions on their own.”

“We considered an array of options and proposals for months and months in meetings with the schools and at budget discussions, which happened almost every single meeting,” Walter said. “I’m at a bit of a loss as to how we could have done more. It’s been the center of attention now—the budget and its issues—not only in the Tam district, but everywhere, for a couple of years.”

According to Holt, the Tam district started to take budget reduction measures as long as two years later than other districts in Marin. Holt’s husband, an employee of the San Rafael High School district, experienced efforts to save and cut money two years ago.

“Most other school districts that I’m aware of started to look at their budgets almost two years ago,” Holt said. “This district did not do anything two years ago; this district did not do anything proactively even a year ago. It’s only this year that they started to pay attention to stuff like that and realize there was a probability that we could have a deficit starting next school year. So we never had the two years to be able to try to do, proactively, other things, such as pay more attention to our book revenue, pay more attention to the amount of money that we expend every month on PG&E.”

Kimbrel, who has been superintendent of the Tam district since August 2008, wrote in an email to the Tam News, “[W]e spent January through May gathering input, data, and having a series of discussions about how to proceed.” Many of the reduction ideas, Kimbrel and Walter said, were incorporated in the list of reductions approved by the board, but were not enough to balance the budget.

“I think we’ve known about the budget situation for the last couple of years, and we’ve been making cuts,” Drescher said. “The state fiscal situation continues to deteriorate, so we’re in a spot where news keeps getting worse.”

Until February, Holt said, “the money continued to flow” and the Tam district did not attempt to cut back expenditures. “They may have done some budgetary switcheroos, but none of that was brought to the attention of the employees,” Holt said. According to financial records, Tam High expenditures have grown every year since the 2007-2008 school year. That year, Tam spent $677,851 total, and the next year school expenditures totaled $869,640. The district allotted $1,022,244 for Tam’s 2009-2010 school year, and according to Holt, departments are “spending that money as hard as they can” because the departments will not be able to keep unspent money as carryover for the following year.

“I had a department chair want to spend money on a shredder—didn’t realize we had a shredding service. If I hadn’t questioned it, and they purchased it, that would have been $700 or $800 spent on a shredder we don’t need,” Holt said.

According to Elsen, Walter, and Parrish, the district eliminated some money from the budget last year. The board eliminated all discretionary spending and a consultant to do work for graduate study, increased class sizes, decided not to institute an International Baccalaureate program, and reduced per-pupil financial allocation and expenditures for technology and other supplies.

“There were many ways for [the district] to be able to look at alternative ways to postpone people losing their jobs,” Holt said. “From what I have seen, that has not been done, nor were any attempts made by the district office to do that. It seems to me that they very quickly went to the easiest way to do that, and that is going to the payroll. The easiest people on the payroll were the classifieds, who are not protected in the union contract, so it was easy to cut those jobs.”

“I understand why people might perceive that [the board communicated poorly],” Walter said. “And perhaps it’s because we were able to insulate everybody from the realities for well over a year. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull any more rabbits out of any more hats.”

“The value of what we provide is the quality people, the instruction and support, and because that’s the most valuable thing we have, the far, far, far majority of our budget and our expenditures are our people, their salaries,” Elsen said. “If we’re forced to cut $2.7 million, it makes sense that there’s going to be some reduction in salaries, in personnel.”

At the board meeting on May 11, Drake attendance clerk Millie Heim told the board members that they should have considered salary reductions before layoffs. “If you’d asked us all to take some little cut to save everybody’s jobs, we would have,” Heim said. Holt expressed similar sentiments.

Around 80 percent of a school district’s money typically is devoted to paying teacher salaries and health benefits. Holt and Tam assistant principals Elsen and Kim Stiffler agreed that the staff takes up a large part of Tam’s budget. Board members, administrators, and literature published on the Tamalpais Union High School District website made clear that cuts were made with the intent of keeping their effects “as far away from the classroom as possible.”

“In light of keeping it as far away from the classroom as possible, they did what they did,” Stiffler said. “Decisions were made.”

“It’s looking at what’s the least amount of damage we can do to the school, and how can we keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” Drescher said. “The reality is, there’s always residual damage—I don’t think that’s the intent. These are wonderful human beings, they work very hard. This is just a very hard time.”

“We’re just trying to stay as far away from the classroom as possible,” board member Cindy McCauley told the audience on May 11.

According to Tam English teacher Austin Bah, the district took into consideration teacher input for budget reduction ideas, but the final product was still a surprise. “Was there teacher input? Yes, but it seems like cuts to classified personnel seem to be higher than anyone could have anticipated,” Bah said.

As it stands, administrators have not developed a plan to make up for the personnel losses next year. Five out of 10 classified positions were eliminated at Tam.

“We provide a very high level of customer service at a very fast pace,” Holt said. “We compete with Branson, we compete with Marin Catholic; we’re not just a public school that has a minimal amount of contact with our students and their families. We give them a lot of customer service, and in order to do that, everybody at a school site works very hard. We have ten people that provide those services here. Five of those people have been cut. How are we going to provide those services?”

“I’m at the point where I’m very emotional about the people who will be leaving as a result [of the eliminations] and the logistics I’m up for figuring out at a later time,” Stiffler said. “In certain cases, things aren’t going to get done.”

“My office is decimated,” Drescher said. “Two out of three people in my office are gone. I don’t know what I’m going to do. What I do know is that we need to continue, we need to go on.”

It is still unclear what work will fall through the cracks in part because losses have not been finalized. Staff members who have lost their jobs because their positions were eliminated have the opportunity to “bump” other staff members out of their jobs if they have seniority and sufficient experience in the area.

“We’re going to go through a process where we’re going to prioritize what is essential work,” Drescher said. “So a lot of work is going to go away, some shifting is going to be required. I don’t have all the answers.”

Teacher morale has been adversely affected by the news of the elimination of classified positions, Bah said. Several teachers were willing to provide background information about the board’s decisions and their effects on campus, but few were willing to go on record. Many are nervous that next year, when the district will have to find ways to cut another $2 million from the budget, they could be next.

“People perceived that things happened suddenly and with a degree of callousness,” Bah said. “I think the fear teachers have is that the district could go very quickly to personnel cuts and teachers would like to be part of a process that seeks alternatives to personnel cuts.”

“Our goal of using the mission as our guide means that we are committed to providing the best possible classroom instruction for our students,” said Kimbrel. “Which means that we will do everything possible to keep our class sizes small and to maintain the excellence of our programs and staff.”

Personnel cuts would have been more drastic, Elsen, Drescher, and Walter agreed, if 12 teachers in the district had not retired. The district provided a $12,000 retirement incentive to certificated staff and another unspecified amount as a retirement incentive for classified staff. “The district proactively did something to incentivize people to retire, which minimizes the number of people we have to lay off because we can hire younger, newer teachers who have less income,” Elsen said.

Several members of the Tam staff, including Starr, reported that Drake has had the most passionate response to the cuts. As of press time, Drake teachers have threatened not to apply for teacher leadership positions. Mary Kitchens, a Drake English teacher for the last 18 years, told the board on May 11, “This is the lowest I’ve ever seen morale at Drake.”

“We’ve all been affected by this,” Drescher said. “Any cut you have has an affect.”

“Solutions,” Starr said. “[It’s] all about solutions. And I don’t know what they are.”

Written by Elissa Stolman. This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.