Schools reject layoffs

The short story is that the South Whidbey Board of Education agreed Monday night that teacher layoffs will not be necessary.

The long story is that it took two motions -- one adopted by a 3-2 board vote and a second defeated 3-2 -- for all five board directors to agree to the same thing.

At issue was the choice over whether or not to lay off teachers to cover an approximate $851,000 shortfall projected for the district's budget next year. The first motion, offered during the meeting by director Helen Price Johnson, recommended by Superintendent Martin Laster and approved by director Bob Riggs, was to take a proposed layoff of up to 30 teacher off the table.

Fifty people, mostly school personnel, packed the community room at the Intermediate School to hear the board's decision. They also heard an emotional presentation by third-grade teacher Rachelle Bolzer about the effects a layoff would have on her life, an impassioned plea from her principal, Doug Hale, and a speech by South Whidbey High School principal Mike Johnson. At one point during his turn at the microphone, he had to pause and reach for a tissue to dab his eyes as he talked about how difficult it would be to lay off 16 teachers from the high school.

The second motion, approved by Chairman Ray Gabelein, directors Barb Schneeman and Jim Adsley, also rejected layoffs, but directed district administrators to take a second look at a list of proposed budget reductions.

The motion was prompted by an item on the list that reduces the hours of custodian and maintenance personnel.

"I still see jobs cut here," said director Jim Adsley. "I don't want to see families hurt."

He said cutting custodians was no different from cutting teachers.

It doesn't make sense to treat people differently," he said. "They have expenses like the rest of us -- children with medical bills -- a loss in hours would reduce benefits as well."

The proposed list of cutbacks was prepared by the district's budget committee, which includes members of the administration, building principals, maintenance and transportation supervisors. To date, proposed reductions in spending have totaled between $864,000 and $1 million. Superintendent Laster described the list as a conceptual framework that shows the district can cut expenses without laying off teachers.

"Employees are an investment," Laster said. "The issue is that we demonstrated we can hit the mark without laying off teachers. Our goal was to hold on to programs and services which translates to people."

The board did not discuss the items on the list, except for the reduction in maintenance personnel hours, nor were they asked to approve it. But they did comment on the list.

"I want to err on the side of caution," said director Schneeman. "Whether it's a half-hour reduction or whatever. I want more information from the administration."

Bob Riggs didn't seem to care for the micro-management aspect of the conversation and voiced his frustrations.

"This is not a contest to see who cares the most, we all do," Riggs said. "We can trust the administration and budget committee with the task of producing a conceptualized list. We are not being asked to approve it."

Riggs, who is a member of a union, added his perspective.

"I am blue collar and I sure as hell don't want to lay off certified staff or members of the Service Employees International Union," he said.

Ray Gabelein urged the administration to look harder at reductions, particularly out-of-state travel.

"To date this year, the district has already spent $46,000 in travel," he said. "This is not the time, when people's jobs and benefits are on the line, for district personnel to be traveling out of state."

Director Johnson seemed to agree.

"People are our best asset. It's time to move us ahead in this process," Johnson said, prompting applause from the audience.

Teachers on the layoff list were notified of their status on April 15. A final decision must be made by May 15.

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