The Reduction in Force (RIF) policy school districts use to lay off staff has proven so controversial that even students have weighed in on the issue.
Several school board candidates blasted the district for manipulating the layoff process to fire teachers administrators don’t like without going through the legally required process.
Other candidates said the board made too many decisions in secret, without ever explaining the reasons behind its decisions.
Still others defended the current process, insisting that the board has made the agonizing decisions about teacher layoffs in a fair and open way, based on criteria that protect the best teachers.
At the Monday, Oct. 15 school board candidates forum hosted by the Payson High School (PHS) Key Club, students pointedly asked the candidates about the contentious policy.
“What will you do as a member of the school board to improve transparency when making decisions for the ‘reduction in force’ process?” asked Key Club president and moderator of the debate, Janine Tantimonaco to the slate of candidates.
Each school district in Arizona has its own RIF policy, but the Legislature imposed certain requirements that effectively eliminated tenure and seniority as a consideration when it comes time to get rid of teachers to balance the budget.
The Payson Unified School District (PUSD) requires the superintendent to recommend to the board employees to lay off in a budget crunch. The superintendent is supposed to consider teaching experience, academic training, ability and past contributions. In the past several rounds of layoffs, then-superintendent Casey O’Brien asked each school site principal for recommendations on layoffs.
The RIF process has affected many PHS students, including Jordyn Fruth, the club’s treasurer. In 2010, the board at a tense school board meeting laid off her father, PHS Vice Principal Tim Fruth and PHS Principal Roy Sandoval. At that time, the strained school board meeting overflowed with supporters of the two men.
That scene repeated earlier this year when current candidate Barbara Underwood chaired the meeting at which the district laid off half a dozen teachers, including former PHS social studies teacher Ron Silverman, who is now a school board candidate. Fifteen students showed up to protest Silverman’s layoff.
Despite the student support, the board voted to let Silverman go. The district then moved junior high social studies teacher Ted Tatum into the social studies department at the high school.
Both Silverman and former teacher Jim Quinlan criticized the RIF process.
“Let’s call it what it is — termination,” said Silverman. He said the district has used layoffs to avoid the lengthy process required to legally fire a teacher. He would like to see RIF’ed teachers given priority when it comes to new hires.
Quinlan agreed with Silverman, “Let’s call RIF’ing what it is — firing. You have an administration with no reason. It’s a stupid, stupid decision. It needs to be objective.”
Underwood, who voted to RIF Silverman, said that the RIF’ing process is the most difficult thing the board does. She sat next to Silverman on the panel.
“It starts with the budgeting process ... (you) look where you can scale back,” she said.
She defended the criteria the district uses to decide on layoffs, which ensures the best and brightest teachers remain.
Candidate Lynette Brouwer complained that the district doesn’t explain layoffs clearly. She originally got involved with the school board issues while protesting the elimination of the one counselor position at the middle school. “I agree transparency is one of the issues across the board,” she said. “I’d like to understand more in advance.”
Payson Tea Party vice chair Shirley Dye agreed with Brouwer, saying the board makes too many decisions in closed-door executive sessions that board members never explain in public, especially if the board is hiring more secretaries after laying off teachers.
“You need to have a fairly good rationale why (you go into executive session), it’s not transparent how things are going,” Dye said.
Former teacher Carmelita Locke blamed the Arizona laws for the RIF process and the lack of transparency they allow. “With Arizona legal statutes, they can notify you the day before school starts if you are RIF’ed,” she said.
Businessman Gerald Rutz had worried the RIF policy perpetuated nepotism, but he said Superintendent Ron Hitchcock convinced him teachers are hired based on their ability.
“I believe teachers need to be informed,” he said of the criteria for layoffs. “I think the state law is unconstitutional” he added, referring to the law banning consideration of seniority in the layoff process.
Parent activist Devin Wala said that despite the complaints about the lack of explanation for board decisions, he believes the board has improved in recent months when it comes to communicating with the public.