School Layoffs Draw Community Reaction

Southern Humboldt Unified School District’s April 14 board meeting was well attended due to several controversial layoffs. (Photo by Sandy Feretto)

Southern Humboldt Unified School District’s April 14 board meeting was well attended due to several controversial layoffs. (Photo by Sandy Feretto)

A staff restructuring at Miranda Junior High and South Fork High School, combined with the news that three teachers would be let go at the end of the school year, made for a stormy and lengthy school board meeting last Thursday.

The meeting, before a crowd of close to 30 people at Redway Elementary, was marked by a public comment period in which a number of speakers rose to voice objections to the personnel changes.

One source of concern had to do with something that was slated to be voted on that night: a district proposal to eliminate two staff positions involving popular and longtime employees — a student services technician position at Miranda Junior High held by Donna Bowman and a similar position at South Fork held by Ann Constantino.

The other issue that provoked emotions was a step the board had already taken in closed session over a month ago. That was the decision to issue “non-rehire notices” to teachers such as Laurie Green, a second-grade teacher at Redway; and Aimee Arnold, a math and science teacher at Miranda Junior High.

Green, in the midst of her second year of teaching at Redway, told the board during the meeting that she was “confused” by the decision, in large part because she had received positive performance evaluations. “I was under the impression I was doing well. There wasn’t any indication that something was wrong with my teaching,” she said.

A coworker, Karie Walker Varner, who teaches kindergarten at Redway, emphasized to the board that Green was very hard-working.

“I can honestly say that any day in the last two years [when] I came into work early, late, Saturday, Sunday or during vacation days, Laurie would already be here working. She shows amazing dedication to our school and district.”

A group of parents and volunteers calling themselves the Miranda Parents Partnership Board, meanwhile, wrote a letter on behalf of Arnold, saying: “We would like to voice our approval of Ms. Arnold’s after-school efforts and participation in our children’s academic life. We hope that her dedication as a teacher will not be overlooked. Our children have voiced nothing but approval about her in-class and after-school participation.”

Given that the decision had already been made, these statements of support did not lead to a board discussion during the meeting.

In an interview the next day, Theresa Martin, president of the Southern Humboldt Teachers Association, indicated that there was little that could be done to fight the terminations.

“Ultimately, the union can’t do anything unless there are some illegal grounds,” she explained.

With regards to Green, for example, Martin said she was in the second year of a two-year probationary period — which means she can be let go for any reason. It’s only when a teacher is in his or her third year that the district “needs a reason to get rid of someone.”

In a separate interview, District Superintendent Catherine Scott made clear that she couldn’t comment on the reason for the terminations due to confidentiality concerns.

But she did point out that the non-rehire notices were issued when they needed to be — prior to March 15.

“That’s a significant event,” she said. “I take that very seriously.”

As for the elimination of Bowman and Constantino’s positions, Scott said during the meeting that there had been a reduction of students since the student services technician positions had been created, and said the district now had a full-time student counselor.

She cited an increase in insurance rates to the district, a shift in the needs of the schools, and financial constraints as reasons for the need to eliminate the positions, including an unforeseen increase in health insurance costs payment to STRS, the State Teachers Retirement System.

“This recommendation is not a reflection of the values of the individuals involved,” Scott said, speaking prior to the vote. “It’s strictly a financial decision.”

“I worked with both individuals when I was dean of students [at South Fork in 2002] and have respect for them both. It’s hard for me to make this recommendation on a personal level. It’s one of the parts of my job that really sucks.”

Jerry Latsko, Constantino’s husband, was, it’s safe to say, unpersuaded by the stated reasons for the layoffs.

“This proposal appears to have been made in haste and without acknowledgement of its repercussions,” he told the board in a prepared statement. “People need to feel that their work is appreciated and understood. Students very much need to know that the district has their best interests at heart. Please do not irreparably do harm to everyone’s morale by taking this step.”

Plenty of others spoke out against the proposal.

Bill Richards, an English teacher at South Fork, said in a brief interview outside the meeting that Constantino “has been an essential supporter of students and faculty for the entire time I’ve been [at the high school]. Students go to her when they have schedule questions and questions about college.”

Another teacher expressed puzzlement at the proposal. “Donna and Ann have had such a huge impact. I don’t understand how [the district] can drop a brain trust like that.”

While Constantino was not at the meeting, Bowman was and seemed unfazed. She explained how the student services positions came about and characterized the district as “kind of top-heavy in these positions.”

“I think it will be fine. This is no reason to pull your kids,” she told the crowd. “Sometimes things have to change.”

Parent Cinnamon Paula urged people to call their state representative and ask them to advocate for public education funding.

In the end, the board voted to approve the resolution to cut the two student services technician positions, albeit reluctantly. Board Member Dennis O’Sullivan, for example, said just before the vote was taken: “There have been a dozen times I’ve hated this job and this is one of them.”

Board Member Scotty McClure was the lone board member voting against. Student trustees Alex Tapia and Raya Mahony, both of whom had spoken out for keeping the positions, were visibly upset at the vote, which also left others in tears.

Dismay and anger were also expressed in public comment about a change to the sixth grade promotion ceremony from the traditional evening celebration with a dance to a school-day event. Several people spoke against the change, saying it was a huge deal to the kids.

The board noted the decision had been made at their board retreat, but they could not take action since it was not on the agenda for this meeting. O’Sullivan said a special meeting is being planned and they will revisit the issue.

In another agenda item Scott reported that the district has been employing three people from non-public agencies to provide support for high needs, special-education students at a cost of over $120,000 for the year. Scott proposed the district create a Behavioral Support Assistant job description that would allow the district, with support from the state’s Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) to train and hire two district aides at a lower cost. The board voted to create the job description and begin the process of hiring two Student Behavioral Support aide positions in the district.

In a related but separate item the board approved Scott’s proposal that the district create a Behavior Support Class for students who demonstrate the need for intensive Behavior Intervention due to limited progress and safety concerns. The class would serve a maximum enrollment of eight junior high-age students with a history of exhibiting high-stakes interfering behaviors. She said the cost to the district would be approximately $80,000.

Board president Dennis O’Sullivan pointed out that the district had sought help in this area from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services but to no avail.

On another agenda item the board voted to hire a full-time position of school secretary and attendance clerk at Miranda Junior High. Scott explained that at the time of the construction of the new junior high it was thought that office staff of both the junior and senior high schools could be combined at the high school, but that had not proven to be successful.

An item requesting the board to increase custodial hours at the Miranda campus was removed from the agenda at Scott’s request.

District transportation director Karl Terrell gave a report on changes in the transportation department and to the bus schedule to increase efficiency.

In other transportation news, two new 10-passenger vans have been purchased for total cost of $70,761.82, paid for with transportation funding. The board ratified the purchases and noted that the funding for the purchase was exclusively for the transportation department.

The next regular school board meeting will be Thursday, May 12 at Casterlin Elementary.

Humboldt Independent staff writer Sandy Feretto contributed to this report.