Emotions ran high at last week’s Rescue Union School District board meeting where parents and teachers implored the five-person board not to lay off more teachers, but instead spend some of the district’s surplus funds to save jobs and give all teachers a pay raise.
Fourteen of the lowest tenured, or non-tenured, teachers in the district received pink slips on March 15. These will go into effect next school year unless the district rescinds them. Superintendent David Swart said declining student enrollment is the chief cause for these layoffs, with roughly 112 fewer students projected to be enrolled in Rescue’s schools next year.
The rallying cry from teachers and parents was that students need more teachers, not less. Parents told the board that not all children’s needs are being met by overwhelmed teachers. Lake Forest PTC President Cristina Jean said where her school used to supplement art and PE programs with PTC funds, this year they spent more on “safety nets” for teachers, “like reading and math intervention programs because the teachers just can’t do it all,” she said. “Shadow a teacher for a day; see how difficult the job is.”
Parent Chris Meyer offered one solution: “Spend a little money to lower the student/ teacher ratio and see how this will boost morale, increase learning and may even draw new families to our district.”
The state requires a school district to hold at least 3 percent of its operating funds as a reserve, but teachers brought handouts stating that Rescue holds 31 percent ($7 million) in savings.
“Release some of these funds that are at our discretion,” parent Kristen Haas pleaded.
School board member Kim White said after the meeting that there are more variables at play. And although she was the lone board member who voted against teacher lay-offs earlier this year, White said she understands why the board has held on to its reserves.
“Only last spring we were given bleak forecasts. That if Prop. 30 didn’t pass, for instance, California school districts would get hit even harder than we already have been. And even though Prop. 30 did pass, it’s still too soon to tell how funds will be funneled down to our district from the state,” she explained, adding that some districts would receive more money than others. “It’s still too early to tell how we will be impacted by Prop. 30. So yes, we’ve been conservative with our spending.”
White said she always makes her decisions based on the best interest of children. “I don’t want to lay off teachers either and I’d love to see smaller class sizes, but I need to balance that with ensuring we can make payroll and our other obligations,” she said. “I’d hate to say, ‘Sorry the state didn’t send us a check this month!’”
Teachers also said they haven’t seen a pay raise in seven years. Though years of experience and post-graduate units do bump up a teacher’s salary scale, the scale hasn’t changed in seven years.
Instead teachers have been offered a one-time, 3 percent bonus, on condition. Seven teachers will have to retire early in addition to the 14 laid off. Twenty-seven-year Jackson Elementary teaching veteran Gerry Neal called the 3 percent bonus offer an insult. “I give more to my students than I give to my own children,” Neal said. “That offer is a slap in the face.”
Known as “employee No. 1,” or the most senior tenured teacher in the district, Rob McClurg spoke at the meeting of his 35 years in the district and how he’s gone to great lengths to bring passion for learning to his classroom. “Now I’m being offered a substantial amount of money to leave, but I’ve never been offered a substantial amount of money to stay.” He then added, “I have to make a huge decision with only days to decide.”
The board made no decisions last week. Negotiations are under way while more votes are scheduled for later this spring and summer.