School district meeting tense, confrontational | SierraSun.com

School district meeting tense, confrontational

Kyle Magin
Sierra Sun

TRUCKEE “-Pink never looked as intimidating as it did Wednesday night at the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting.

Clad mostly in a color generally reserved for bright spring days, a crowd of more than 100 gathered at the Sierra Mountain Community Education Center. More than a few dressed in pink as a show of support for the 120 or so teachers who received pink slips this week as the district sent out layoff notices as a precaution to stem its $4 million or so budget deficit for the oncoming school year.

“I’m wearing pink to show solidarity for those teachers who received pink slips,” said Molly Holiday, a kindergarten teacher in Kings Beach Elementary’s Dual Immersion Program. “I have to say (the amount of layoff notices) seems excessive, I’m not sure we’re in the cataclysm they’re preparing for.”

Many scoffed and openly seethed as Superintendent Steve Jennings spoke to open the meeting, encouraging the crowd to work together rather than create a divide in the community, and offer constructive criticism.

“Since the forums we had last month, I’ve heard a lot about what the district shouldn’t do rather than what we should do,” Jennings said. “I’m pretty disappointed in that … what we need are constructive criticisms.”

Jon Halvorsen, the Tahoe Truckee Education Association’s vice president, said the words were divisive in a time when both sides need to work together.

“Mr. Jennings said he’s seen what kind of community we are, so let’s step up and do (work together),” Holvorsen said.

Then the elephant in the room was addressed.

After a diverse group of employees in the past weeks decided to forgo and defer raises” moves which saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars and dropped a projected budget deficit from its high point of $4.7 million ” Teacher Association President Mike Merriman asked the board in the hypothetical if the district would rescind some or all of the layoff notices if the association’s members would be willing to re-negotiate their contract, which after an October negotiation calls for a 12 percent raise over two years.

“If we are willing to re-negotiate our contract, then would you be willing to rescind the

layoff notices?” Merriman asked.

He clarified he could not negotiate the point in an open meeting and was only

speaking in the terms of “what if?”

Jennings said the district would need to consider that stance were it to come along.

“We’d have to look at what the savings would be,” Jennings said.

Merriman, along with Truckee High School teacher Trent Kirschner, said the board should have acted more responsibly in the years leading up to today by laying off teachers when teachers told the district they were overstaffed.

“Over the last three years we’ve told you that we’re overstaffed and the board didn’t do anything,” Kirschner said.

Board member Bev Ducey asked if Kirschner was referring to the lower-populated schools in Tahoe City, North Tahoe High School and North Tahoe Middle, and he replied yes.

“You have to remember we’re here to educate the kids,” Ducey said. “It is our duty to offer an equal opportunity for education … to make sure our kids are getting equal resources no matter where they go to school. I will not deny students that right.”

Board president Kristy Olk followed Ducey’s defense of the position by saying small class sizes ” even at a small school ” is something important to the TTUSD.

“There is a balancing act we have to do,” Olk said. “There are things we’ve valued in this district for a long time, things like small class size … these are expensive things, but things we valued dearly.”

A number of teachers who spoke in public comment said they were dismayed at the number of layoff notices which went out to teachers this week, about 120-130, which was above the 95 the school board agreed to in a resolution last week.

David Inns, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the amount of notices which went out were to due to the fact 95 full time positions were identified in the resolution, but many employees are part time. Also, employees may have seniority in multiple fields, i.e. science, gym and special education, so precautions needed to be taken.

Jennings was careful to point out the notices represented only the worse-case scenario, and that hopefully many of those noticed would be called back. He also pointed out the district’s unfortunate timeline, that due to state law the notices had to go out by Friday ” well before many budget issues which could have contracted the number of those noticed were decided.

Truckee High School government teacher Nik Fertita asked Steve Dickinson, the district’sa assistant superintendent of finance, if cuts would need to be continually made.

“I was a temp for three years, which meant I’d get let go on the last day of school and hired back two days before the year started,” Fertita said. “I hoped I was past that when I got tenure.”

Dickinson said he hoped the district would make substantive cuts this year so they wouldn’t have to revisit the issue in future year. Fertita said he was pleased with the answer.

There was a bit of a good news at the meeting, though.

Dickinson said the TTUSD’s previous, worst-case budget estimates of $4.7 million have receded to about $4 million.

National Forest Service money for the district, valued at about $250,000, was thought to be previously revoked but the district was notified that it was back on the table.

“That’s some of the better news we’ve received,” Dickinson said. “Combine that with some mid-year expense savings that are ongoing in energy, transportation and smaller unions deferring and forgoing raises and we’ve saved about $600,000.”

Jon Halvorsen, Vice President of the Tahoe Truckee Education Association, which represents the teachers, challenged the board and residents to help out any teachers who lose their jobs in the coming months.

Halvorsen offered a room in his own home for any teacher who loses their job and needs a place to stay while they find out if they’ll be rehired.

“We’re looking for community members to step up and offer free or affordable housing if they can,” Halvorsen said.

He said he would also appreciate it if community members would let the TTEA know of jobs in the community for teachers to hold until they could find something else or knew if they were re-hired by the district.

He said these job and housing opportunities would be posted on the TTEA’s website at tahoetruckeeteachers.org.