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Workers, students: Don’t base school layoffs on seniority

Throughout the South Whidbey School District, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty following layoff notices that were sent to 37 educators last week.

But the one message that those who received layoff notices want the world to hear is this: The reduction-in force notifications — RIFs — were based on seniority, not competence or classroom performance.

“It has nothing to do with the individual’s performance, but is solely based on years of service and program needs,” said special education teacher Becky Ward.

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy agrees with that assessment. He said the reason for the district’s action is directly related to reduced revenue, union seniority and reduced program needs due to significant enrollment decline.

Since employee salaries represent the lion’s share of any school district’s budget —

83 percent for South Whidbey — employees are taking the biggest hit.

Last week, the school district told certificated school employees they are at risk of not having their contracts renewed for the coming school year, a budget-saving measure caused by declining enrollment and the need to downsize programs and staff.

Students are not happy with the criteria used to make the cuts.

“We don’t like the seniority aspect; that doesn’t make sense to us,” said senior Natalie Wheeler.

“A teacher makes the list who does a better job educating us, who has a passion for teaching, can be RIF’d, but another who has lots of years, but isn’t competent, stays? That isn’t right,” she said.

Maya Hough is the associated student body president.

“It may be inevitable, but really hard to understand for many of us,” Hough said. “From our perspective, the ability to teach is unrelated to the years spent in the classroom.”

For eight years, Mark Eager has been teaching history at the high school. Under union seniority rules, his name is on the list.

He said he didn’t come to the island for financial reasons.

“I came so my kids would get a great education surrounded by a caring community,” Eager noted. “In class, I explain the need to see both sides of issues. The union is doing the best job it can to advocate for teachers while the administration is facing what they term ‘the perfect storm;’ decline in enrollment plus a bad economy equals loss of jobs.”

Eager said that if he’s on the final list, he will have to move his family off-island, thereby invoking a Catch-22 for the district.

“If I and Mark Hodson (also RIF’d) were let go, the high school would lose our services in the classroom, plus eight of our children currently enrolled; that’s another $42,000 loss based on the funding the state pays per student,” Eager said.

The final list of names will be sent on May 15, following a full school board review.

The list of classified employees — secretaries, custodians, cooks, bus drivers and other support staff — won’t be released until sometime before the school year ends in June.

Of the total on the list, 18 notices went to certificated staff in grades six through 12, eight went to alternative staff from Whidbey Island Academy and Bayview School, and 11 notices went to staff in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Teachers, counselors and librarians were on the list. The high school football coach and sprinter track coach were named (both teach history as well), as did the director of the Whidbey Island Academy, the wives of two district administrators and a middle school teacher already picked to spend a summer in Antarctica on a research project. She had planned to share her experiences with next fall’s students.

To reduce the district’s $1.9 million budget shortfall, officials are examining every item, line by line.

The first step is to draw down the fund balance by $300,000 — money set aside for cash flow and emergencies — to cover expenditures next year. Another $200,000 will be saved from the teaching and learning budget and those items affecting curriculum.

The district’s plans to buy new history texts next year are on hold.

Already in progress are cost-cutting measures such as consolidating the primary and intermediate schools, food service cuts, transportation savings, combining administrative duties and eliminating some support services.

The schools will look at every program offered, from field trips and elective classes to sports and out-of-state travel. Each principal has been asked to define programs that can be trimmed or eliminated by the end of the school year.

But even after all the above steps are taken, the schools still need to trim $1.3 million from the budget in salaries.

The list*

Employees on the RIF list include: Nels Bergquist, Val Brown, Diane Burgess, Patti Craig, Emily Czerwonka, Sarah Diers, Heather Dubendorf, Mark Eager, Chad Felgar, Louise Fiore, Christine Fitz, Jessica Foley, Jay Freundlich, Jennifer Gandarias, Don Gochanour, Linda Good, Sharyl Harless, Mark Hodson, Betsy Hofius, Lana Johnson, Steve Jones, John LaVassar, Sharla Matthews, Ashley McConnaughey, David Nelson, Leigha Patton, Caryn Ploof, Jennifer Sand, Wendy Shearer, Wendy Simons, Valerie Twomey, Becky Ward, Carrie Whitney, Don Wodjenski, Susan Wolf Rottkay and Leslie Woods.

* Workers were given the chance to “opt out” of having their names published on this list by the Record.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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