At the end of the 2011-12 school year, six Payson Unified School District teachers succumbed to a reduction in force (RIF).
Payson High School (PHS) took the biggest hit, losing three teachers. The social studies, English and Career and Technical Education departments lost a staff member each.
Yet, by the start of the current school year, both the English and social studies departments at PHS had hired new staff — just not the staff members who had lost their jobs.
The layoffs included high school social studies teacher Ron Silverman, now running for a seat on the school board. The new hires included the son of a school board member — a social studies teacher hired at the middle school.
Critics say the school district has turned the layoff process into an end run around the normal hiring and firing rules protecting teachers. But district officials say the state Legislature now dictates layoff policies.
“There is a statute in Arizona for the purposes of RIF’ing,” said Superintendent Ron Hitchcock.
He said when the Arizona Legislature effectively eliminated tenure, teachers lost any security with the job — especially when the district has to cut its budget.
Everything changed in 2009 when the Legislature passed House Bill 2011. The bill forbid school districts from using seniority to either guarantee that the last hired would be the first fired or even consider length of service when rehiring.
The bill also extended the deadline to hand out contracts. Before HB2011, school district staff had to be notified by April 15 whether they would receive a contract or not. This past year, some staff had no formal notification they had a contract until shortly before school started.
HB2011 also allowed districts to lower salaries for individual teachers, regardless of their seniority and tenure.
Hitchcock explained that the Legislature opened the door for local districts to come up with their own written process on who will be RIF’ed based on objective and subjective ratings by the principal and superintendent. Many teachers have said the standards include so many subjective criteria that principals can lay off teachers with little connection to rated job performance and little understanding on the part of the faculty as to why some people get laid off and others don’t.
“There was a PUSD process created that was allowable within the statute,” said Hitchcock.
He would like to re-align district goals to make the RIF’ing process more understandable.
“We need to agree upon one set of four to five criteria (for RIF’ing),” he said.
With the various shifts in staff, from the PHS English and social studies departments to hiring new staff at the middle school, rumors have flown that PUSD might be abusing the RIF’ing process to remove teachers administrators simply do not like — regardless of ability.
Take for example the high school English department.
During a special meeting of the school board, Nora Lubitz was let go due to a reduction in staff.
Shortly after, another English teacher, Jennifer White, moved to the counseling position opened after Judy Michel retired from the PHS counseling department.
Because of HB2011, Lubitz was not offered the new position. If she had applied, she would have had to submit her application and take her chances just as other teachers — old or new — would have.
Silverman departed from PHS because of RIF’ing. Ted Tatum from Rim Country Middle School moved over from the high school to fill his place.
Then at the middle school, social studies teacher Scott Novak resigned.
Principal Will Dunman said this was a surprise. He convened a hiring committee comprised of himself, Vice Principal Yvette Harpe and Ned Schall, the other social studies teacher at the school. They hired school board member Rory Huff’s son, Miles.
“It wasn’t an easy choice,” said Dunman.
He had numerous applications, but the hiring committee felt Huff was the best choice. He was well known to the district, having completed his student teaching at PUSD and he had coached the PHS girls basketball team.
Hitchcock hopes redefining the goals of the board and district will create a process for evaluating teachers fairly for the RIF’ing process.
But, he really hopes to never have to RIF any teacher by controlling the budget.
“I don’t want to go to the RIF’ing process at the end of the year. I want to be prepared,” he said.