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CUSD budget shortfall could have layoff implications

Members of the Claremont Unified School District drew a round of applause from staff and faculty at Thursday’s school board meeting when they spent several minutes discussing how they might avoid giving pink slips to classified employees.

It began when the board was asked to take action on a human resources item, voting on whether or not to approve Resolution #11-2014: Reduction in Force-Classified Services. The resolution would grant the district permission to notify classified employees at various elementary school sites that they may be subject to a Reduction in Force (RIF).

More bluntly put, a RIF is a layoff. The positions at stake included Paraeducator II (instructional aide), Computer Instructional Assistant and Paraeducator III (instructional assistant).

Even if an employee receives notice that their job is in jeopardy, it doesn’t mean they will lose it. Potential layoffs would be effective the coming school year.

Before the board launched into the action item, CUSD service center staffer Matt Plumb took to the podium. Speaking on behalf of the Claremont chapter of the California school Employees Association, he asked the district to refrain from the potential layoffs.

His entreaty emphasized that, with funding tight, classified employees have sacrificed much in recent years. They have seen very little in the way of raises, despite the rapidly escalating cost of living.

Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker explained the resolution was prompted by a surprise $40,000 mid-year cut in Title 1 funding, federal money allocated to schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Title 1 schools in Claremont include Vista del Valle, Oakmont and Mountain View.

Ms. Shoemaker only found out about the funding reduction, which comes in response to new census data, while she was working on a preliminary budget for the 2015-2016 school year.

“We were quite shocked,” Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Bonnie Bell shared. “We called the state department to get an explanation.”

Board member Sam Mowbray was troubled by the resolution and spoke up, questioning whether pink slips should automatically be distributed whenever there is a funding cut.

If CUSD can afford to pay employees through its general fund or money obtained from another category, he wondered, can’t the district avoid cutting their positions? And if that’s the case, can’t CUSD put off giving pink slips, at least for the time being?

“We might have a cost we could kind of eat for a few months without breaking the bank,” Mr. Mowbray said. “I would like to give us as much flexibility rather than hand out pink slips.”

Even potential RIFS are unsettling for employees, noted Kara Evans, a teacher on special assignment who is helping the district implement the Common Core.

“Pink slips cause so much anxiety,” she said.

Layoffs are not only detrimental to employee morale, they are potentially devastating to a school site, Mr. Mowbray expressed.

“I’d like to know about the impact [of potential layoffs] to the educational program,” he said. “I would hope we would have a way to talk about it beforehand.”

Superintendent Jim Elsasser politely urged the board to pass the resolution.

Should layoffs prove economically necessary, he asserted, CUSD cannot eliminate any of the positions in question if the staffers have not been given advance notice, in this case at least 60 days.

“If the board does not approve this item, we’ll miss the deadline,” he said. “If we make the decision now, we can rescind it.”

Ms. Shoemaker, who will continue working on the budget over the spring break, said the initial conversations on which positions should be saved starts with the respective school site councils.

“We could perhaps shift funding to another category and try to keep the sites relatively whole,” she said.

Before voting to approve the agenda item, the board in its entirety echoed Mr. Mowbray’s sentiments that layoffs should be avoided if at all possible.

“I would like to discuss what’s the plan for these positions soon,” board member Hilary LaConte said.

While the resolution was passed, the board earned resounding applause from CUSD employees in the audience after the discussion. These included classified employees like Mr. Plumb and Rosie Bister, president of the classified staff union, and teachers like faculty union representatives Dave Chamberlain and Joe Tonan.

“I was very impressed with the deep and thoughtful discussion that took place,” said Ms. Bister after the meeting. “I think the board saw the seriousness of the resolution. It validated the value of our employees and what they do.”

The faculty union members on hand said they follow the way that classified staff are treated very closely, because it reflects the overall philosophy of the district with regards to all employees.

“Oh my gosh, that was the best discussion they’ve had in years. It shows that the board is independent-thinking,” Mr. chamberlain said.

When asked after the meeting whether the applause had been tendered for Mr. Mowbray, Mr. Plumb demurred.

“It was for everyone, because it was hearing the conversation,” he said.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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