Hart district employees to begin getting layoff notices

A member of the Hart District Teachers Association presses a protest sign against the window of the board meeting room during Wednesday's meeting. Habeba Mostafa/The Signal
A member of the Hart District Teachers Association presses a protest sign against the window of the board meeting room during Wednesday's meeting. Habeba Mostafa/The Signal
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Bob Jensen may have said it best on Wednesday when Linda Storli asked, “Do I have a second?” 

“I don’t want to,” Jensen said, “but I will.” 

The two members of the William S. Hart Union High School District governing board, as well as the other three members, had just heard from district staff on why the district needs to cut expenditures, a discussion that has been going on for multiple months. 

And some of those cuts, the board decided in approving the motion made by Storli and seconded by Jensen, will come via layoffs. 

An independent review of the district’s budget, also presented at Wednesday’s board meeting, reported that the district is in dire need of cutting costs due to a decrease in state funding. 

And while the idea has been in the air since the board approved a fiscal stability plan in January that will see the district attempt to save roughly $46 million over the next three and a half years, the board officially approved layoff notices for district employees on Wednesday. All notices are to be sent out by the end of next week, according to Collyn Nielsen, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, and employees will be notified in order of seniority, with those with the least tenure being the first on the list. 

Governing board member Cherise Moore abstained from the vote regarding classified employee layoff notices, with the other four board members voting to approve it. The other vote regarding certified employees passed unanimously. 

The breakdown of full-time equivalent certificated employees affected, of which 63 are listed, is as follows: 

  • 3 FTE in Sequoia Therapeutic Special Education Program.  
  • 5 FTE in general special education teaching services.  
  • 4 FTE in science 7/8.  
  • 9 FTE in physical education.  
  • 5 FTE in math.  
  • 12 FTE in English.  
  • 12 FTE in social studies.  
  • 6 FTE in student support program specialist, two positions of which are currently vacant.  
  • 7 FTE in counselors. 

The vacant positions listed mean that the actual number of positions that could be affected is 61. 

The breakdown of full-time equivalent classified employees affected, of which there are 29.14, is as follows: 

  • 5.14 FTE, bus assistant (extra duty assignment only).   
  • 13 FTE, school-based therapist.  
  • 4 FTE, custodian.  
  • 1 FTE, warehouse worker.  
  • 2 FTE, program specialist.   
  • 2 FTE, administrative assistant.   
  • 1 FTE, 12-month secretary.   
  • 1 FTE, groundskeeper. 

The fiscal stability plan indicates that these reductions in force will see the district save approximately $21.3 million in expenditures over the next three and a half years. Nielsen added that just because notices are being sent out does not mean that every affected employee will be laid off. He said the hope is that reductions will be satisfied mostly through employees in those departments either retiring or voluntarily leaving their positions (e.g. finding another job). 

“The full-time equivalent is the number of people in those positions,” Nielsen said. “This number allows us to proceed with (reduction-in-force) notices for those employees. It does not necessarily mean that 63 people are going away next year. If people retire or resign in the right subject areas before the end of the year, we’re able to pull some back. If the board wants to prioritize a certain area, we can pull certain RIF notices back.” 

Administrative reductions are also set to be made, Nielsen said, though that process is different. 

Jensen said, in his opinion, the district should be doing what it can to keep all of its therapists, of which the district currently employs 26. 

Some of those therapists spoke at the meeting in an attempt to keep those reductions away from the department. Tracie Tewksbury said her job is more important than ever today with students missing class at a higher rate over the past few years than ever before.  

The district has seen its average daily attendance drop to 19,613 in the 2023-24 school year as of the first interim budget report presented in December, which represents 94.82% of the district’s total enrollment. That’s a steep drop from the 97.65% that the district had in the 2020-21 school year, equating to an average of 21,211 students attending per day. 

“There are many reasons why students might not be attending school, but often it’s due to social and emotional issues,” Tewksbury said. “Therapists work with students to address the personal difficulties they’re experiencing, which removes the barrier for them to come to school. Sometimes, just the prospect of seeing their therapist gets them to school. Cutting these positions may lead to further attendance lows.” 

Storli, president of the governing board and representative of Trustee Area No. 1, asked Kathy Hunter, the district’s assistant superintendent of student services, safety and wellness, if mental health is a bigger issue today than it was 30 years ago. 

Hunter’s answer, in short, was yes, using social media and the COVID-19 pandemic as a couple of the reasons why that is the case. 

“Needs are definitely greater,” Hunter said. “That’s been established by researchers nationwide. In fact, it’s worldwide. It’s not just even here in the United States. So, we are definitely seeing a significant change in the mental health of children. Some of it obviously got worse because of COVID.” 

Michael Vierra, the district’s deputy superintendent of educational services, said there is a possibility that some counselors could be paid for with state funding, should the district be able to lobby for their jobs being required for student success. 

“That’s a possibility,” Vierra said. “There has been some counselors, I know, funded in the past. That’s a process we’re going through right now.” 

These discussions came near the end of the meeting. At the beginning, John Minkus, president of the Hart District Teachers Association, spoke in regard to the contract negotiations currently ongoing between the HDTA and the district. The HDTA has been working without a contract since July. 

While not focusing entirely on the impending vote for layoff notices, he did say that the two issues — potential layoffs and apparently stalled contract negotiations — are related, and that district staff should have done a better job of balancing the budget against the number of staff that has been hired recently, citing the district’s $116 million in reserve funds that it held at the end of the last school year. 

“It ain’t the plan that caused this fiasco, it ain’t the plan that will solve it,” Minkus said. “It comes to this: You’re not doing your job. If you can’t do it, then you must resign or be removed. That’s for staff and board alike. If you can take a $300 million budget with $100 million reserve and run it into the ground in two years, if you don’t know the basic facts of budget, procedures of governance or of the tempest you have created clouding the extraordinary work of our members, you don’t deserve to be sitting there.” 

As Minkus spoke, a cohort of more than 100 HDTA members stood outside the district’s office, chanting things such as “fair deal,” in reference to wanting a portion of the 8.22% cost-of-living adjustment that all school districts received from the state for the current school year. 

According to Linette Hodson, director of management consulting services for School Services of California, that COLA is not simply tossed into the general fund to be dispersed at once. Hodson, contracted by the district for an independent budget review, said some of that money has to go toward higher operational costs — such as water and power — and higher educational services costs, such as textbooks and other syllabus-related materials. 

After taking those costs into account, the district would only have roughly 4.5% of that COLA left over, Hodson said. 

Hodson also mentioned how enrollment being down — the district had 22,469 students in the 2022-23 school year after having 26,983 students in 2014-15, according to the California Department of Education — has decreased the amount of funding the district receives. According to Hodson, each student generated $13,021 in revenue for this school year. 

“So, as you’re declining enrollment and attendance, you also are declining the revenue that you received,” Hodson said. 

She concluded her review by saying that because employees represent the largest portion of the district’s budget — Superintendent Mike Kuhlman estimated that employees are roughly 80-85% of the district’s expenditures each year — that must be addressed first before any other reductions are put in place. 

“I wish I had a different answer because I know I know what decision is in front of you, and I know the impact of that decision,” Hodson said. “Unfortunately, in a school district when 83% of your budget is people and you have to make significant cuts, there isn’t enough stuff.” 

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