Teachers asked to share the burden

With a $9 million shortfall in the CUSD budget, employees could take cutbacks to minimize layoffs

Sharing the pain seems to be in the air these days. Whether it’s Chico city employees agreeing to hold off on raises or Butte County looking at furloughs and pay cuts to avoid layoffs, people are being asked more and more to put their colleagues and institutions first, above personal gain.

Chico Unified School District, which faces a $9 million shortfall, just jumped on that bandwagon.

The district sent out pink slips this week to 160 full-time employees and 74 part-timers, most of them teachers. But that doesn’t mean that all 234 people will be laid off come next school year. The district, in an unprecedented open dialogue, has put another option on the table: cutting benefits and eliminating some paid work days to absorb a portion of the shortfall.

“We’ve got a big problem,” said Bob Feaster, assistant superintendent for human resources. “I don’t see how we can solve it without some pain.”

The way the district has chosen to tackle the problem is by looking at its personnel costs (more than 90 percent of the district’s budget) by employee classification and asking each group to take on its “fair share” of the cuts. Teachers make up

70 percent of personnel costs—so that group would be asked to take care of 70 percent of the total cuts (about $6.3 million). In contrast, classified employees make up roughly 20 percent and management about 10 percent of personnel costs.

The Chico Unified Teachers Association and the school district are currently in negotiations about the proposed changes, so union president John Jenswold declined to comment on them. CUSD is in similar talks with its classified employees’ union. Management employees are not represented by a bargaining team.

“Nobody likes it—it’s painful,” Feaster said. But he sees no other option. Even if all 234 employees were laid off, which he doesn’t foresee, that still would not cover the shortfall. Conversely, even with all the concessions proposed, some employees will still be laid off. “It’s not either/or,” he said.

A problem CUSD faces is that, although the state budget has been finalized, the district is still shooting at a moving target.

Example: Back in January, the district was under the impression that it would have total flexibility with funds (about $3 million in Chico) specified for schools with small K-3 class sizes. That is not the case, Feaster said: “We had assumed we would have total flexibility, but there’s a graduated penalty system, and we could end up losing up to 30 percent [of the money] if we go above 24:1 [student-teacher ratios].”

The current requirement for the funding is 20 students per teacher—so plans to lay off a large number of elementary-school teachers may not prove as cost-effective as district officials had at first thought.

“The folks who are getting a layoff notice, I’ve talked with all of them,” said Ted Sullivan, principal at Chapman Elementary, where 11 teachers—about half the school’s staff—received pink slips. “They want to know what’s going on. They’re still working hard, but it changes their perspective.”

Even those who didn’t get slips are wondering what the future holds, he added. Because the layoffs are largely seniority-based, some teachers may be asked to move to another campus where more layoffs occurred.

“It affects a lot of folks in a lot of ways,” said Sullivan, who has been principal at Chapman for four years. “People are not only worried about their jobs and careers; they’re thinking about their relationships with the kids, their families, and peers.”

Another unknown is the federal stimulus package, which could make money available to the district, but “we anticipate at least a portion was used by the state in their balancing act,” Superintendent Kelly Staley wrote in her latest in-house newsletter.

Jenswold, the teachers’ union president, pointed out another variable: results of a special election set for May 19. On the ballot is Proposition 1B, which would “protect education funding” and begin repaying the California school system for cuts made in this current budget in 2011-12.

“Nobody is happy with what’s going on, and so obviously emotions are running high,” Jenswold said. “Some people have called it a perfect storm, if you will. We have to relax, stay calm, look at things rationally as they come up and make the best decision we can.”

Final notices must go out to employees by May 15, so the bargaining may last that long, Jenswold said. Ultimately the decision will be put up to a vote of the union’s members, the teachers themselves.

“We are really working hard to be clear and transparent. This is an effort to put all our cards out on the table,” Feaster said. “Unfortunately, we are now making decisions that are not necessarily in the best

interest of students. But they make economic sense for district.”