School Layoffs Provoke Criticism

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Days after the Payson Unified School District lost 8 percent of its staff, both the public and the district are surveying the remains.

Some community members have criticized the district, saying the cuts occurred behind closed doors and without public input. People interviewed said they found the lack of public input abominable and the delivery of decisions unfair.

“I really think that the public was duped,” said Toni Sarcinella, a member of the high school site council who says she was never asked for input. “I think the way this was done was not in the best interest of the community.”

But school board members stood by their decisions, saying they kept the cuts as far from the classroom as possible. Decisions involving personnel are impossible to discuss publically, school officials say.

“These are solutions to get us through these times,” said board president Rory Huff. The decisions were heart-wrenching, but necessary, he added.

Public discussion would have been too emotional and members say that the board sets policy and the superintendent implements it. Anything else would constitute micro-management, members say.

“Our direction was to keep the damage as far away from the classroom as you could,” said Huff. The school board agreed and instructed Superintendent Casey O’Brien to return with recommendations.

Many people contacted this week said the decisions seemed too political.

However, Craig Swartwood, who worked on the override committee, said he doesn’t think any politics were involved. The decisions were painful, but the district has always warned of the shortfall, he said.

“He didn’t rose color anything,” Swartwood said of O’Brien. The override, “wasn’t going to be the salvation of our educational system up here.”

Others, including Sarcinella, disagree. “We thought, ‘Pass the override and we’re good to go,’” she said. Had the district told the community how devastating the coming cuts would be, residents would have rallied to help uncover options, she said.

“This is a community of people who are bright and educated and accomplished,” Sarcinella said. “It’s not a bunch of people with their feet up drinking iced tea.”

In the course of two meetings with no discussion save for several members reading prepared statements, the board laid off 17 people and decided against renewing one administrator’s contract for non-disciplinary reasons. The district will basically change the name from vice principal to academic dean and refill it.

O’Brien wrote in an e-mail that most of the decisions “involved input from site and district administrators, my advisory committee, and inputs via suggestion boxes at each of the sites and departments.”

Huff said site administrators were given the authority to determine layoffs at their schools. “That’s what you have a school administrator for,” he said.

Two members of the high school’s site council say they’re astonished and hurt the district never asked their opinion.

John Lemon, a retired educator with 17 years of administrative experience in California, wrote a commentary the Roundup will publish Tuesday next to board member Richard Meyer’s explanation of the cuts. Lemon says the district should have established a committee of administrators, parents, teachers and students to help create budget-saving plans according to the board’s priorities.

“As an educator with 30 years of experience, I can confidently state that a number of grievous and gross errors in procedures were made,” Lemon wrote. “Professional and judgment errors taint the process.”

Board member Meyer says citizens should attend the meetings.

But some residents say the decisions were made so quickly and unexpectedly that input was impossible.

Scott Nossek, a friend of laid-off principal Roy Sandoval, said he had no idea the decision was already made when he testified on his friend’s behalf during the first board meeting.

“What was the rationale of gutting the leadership of our highest performing school?” Nossek wondered.

“I just feel that the board could have handled it differently and not put it all on Casey.”

The district has also been criticized for sending out agendas late on a Friday afternoon so the public had little chance to attend.

Huff compared the board to a corporate board, which hires the chief executive and holds him accountable, but doesn’t fire employees. Board members Meyer and Barbara Underwood agreed.

Huff said the decisions were neither haphazard nor political. “Everything is documented.”

O’Brien said the district doled out RIF notices based on state statute and district policy, which he said represented “the only criteria we could legally use, based on discussions with our attorney.”

The RIF policy spells out criteria including the employee’s qualifications and certifications. Criteria also included teaching experience, as well as “past contributions to the educational program of the district.” The policy prohibits the district from considering tenure or seniority. While balancing the state budget last year, lawmakers eliminated seniority as criterion during reductions in force.

A quick view of other districts undertaking layoffs shows many invited public discussion over a series of weeks or months.

Flagstaff schools, initially identified more than 450 positions for elimination. The district subsequently refined the list to about 380, but wanted to alert teachers and other staff of the potential for layoffs. Advisory boards set priorities among lists of non-mandated administrative and student expenses provided by the district.

Groups examined everything from principals and district-level administration to high school counselors, nurses, music and support services. Ironically, Flagstaff stakeholders considered high school principals the top priority.

A prioritized list appeared in late March, and the school board met many times with the superintendent for further discussions.

Ultimately, the district issued reduction in force notices (RIFs) to teachers with three or fewer years of full-time district employment, and teachers, librarians or counselors with just one certification.

In Paradise Valley, the superintendent spoke with stakeholders, including parents, to determine priorities to cut $7 million.

In Maricopa, the district created an ad hoc budget committee to supply recommendations to the district.

In Payson, concerned citizens feel hurt their expertise wasn’t requested.

Sarcinella also vehemently disagreed that O’Brien should make all the decisions.

“The superintendent is there to advise them,” Sarcinella said. “You’re allowing one person to dictate an entire school system? That makes no sense to me.”

For her part, Sarcinella said she will likely not volunteer with the high school next year.

“I feel I had no value in the position. Why was I there?” Councils are meant to offer opinions.

“I’m offended,” she said. “If they really felt a need to reorganize on this level, they needed to have the input that they said they had.”

Sarcinella added, “I think the way it was done was shameful.”

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