Support staff upset with last-minute cuts

By Shannon Smith

Administrators for the Champaign Unit 4 School District are cutting $2 million from the budget in the 2005-06 school year, due to a $5 million deficit. However, last-minute changes to the list of budget cuts has left the support staff union in strong opposition.

The Champaign Educational Support Personnel (CESP) was notified less than two hours before the Champaign School Board reviewed a revised list of budget reductions that cut additional support staff members.

Gene Vanderport, CESP representative, said he received a fax late on the afternoon of March 30, stating that the administration had added about half a dozen more support staff positions to the list of cuts.

“That’s what stirred our emotions a little bit on our side of the table,” Vanderport said. “We’ve already indicated to the school board that we’re going to meet at the negotiating table to talk about these things.”

However, Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent for human resources and community relations, said the administration had notified the union president about potential changes earlier in the week.

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    “The exact changes were not determined until the day of the board meeting, and they were notified that day,” Shepperd said. “That’s why we gave them the open offer to bargain the issue of the change. But we had been very clear that it may change.”

    The additional cuts of library clerk positions – four at the elementary level and two at the high school level – were especially surprising to union members, Vanderport said.

    “When you cut computer access and library access, I’m not sure how you get to equity,” he said.

    Vanderport said the union was more prepared to deal with the elimination of computer aide positions because they had two weeks notice. He said the short warning for the elimination of library clerk positions made them extremely difficult.

    “The difference between the two is at least we had some processing time (with the computer aides),” Vanderport said.

    Joanne Wirth, library clerk at Kenwood Elementary School, said she was contacted about the revised list of cuts late in the afternoon on March 30.

    “I just was very disappointed and shocked that they did this such a short time after we (the support staff) had come to an agreement on the contract,” Wirth said.

    Shepperd said that while needing to remove positions is never an ideal situation, it must be done if the district is going to cut $2 million for the upcoming school year to help relieve the district of a $5 million budget deficit.

    “It’s not pleasant, and it’s not an indictment of the positions eliminated,” she said. “You have to figure out how to do more with less.”

    Shepperd said the administration tried to make the cuts fairly uniform across all employment categories – administrative positions were cut as well as teaching positions and non-certified personnel positions.

    Vanderport disagreed, saying the cuts were not fair across the board and that more could have been taken from the administrative side.

    “It’s the teachers and the support staff that provide the services to the kids, not the administrators,” Vanderport said. “If there’s going to be any belt tightening, it should be at the top.”

    According to Shepperd, the school board activated the list of cuts at the March 30 meeting, cutting 15 certified positions, 15 non-certified positions and two administrative positions. She said the cuts were made through reduction in force – a legal term describing the need for a reduction in staff size that could be due to a budget issue.

    “We can work on this as long as necessary,” Shepperd said. “Once you have eliminated them with reduction in force, you can bring them back or not bring them back. When you eliminate someone under reduction in force, there is no disparagement about their performance.”

    Wirth said the budget changes would require her to work four hours at Kenwood and four hours at another elementary school in the district, rather than full time at Kenwood. She said having to spread her time between two schools would have an effect on the students.

    “Obviously, I wouldn’t know any of the students wherever I’m at,” Wirth said. “It’s especially helpful to know the students and what types of books they both like and dislike.”

    Wirth said she feels that the library clerk position is a vital part of the learning process for students.

    “The libraries are an important part of the education process,” she said. “It does take two people to run these libraries. The librarian mainly teaches classes. That leaves all the other responsibilities to the library secretaries.”

    Vanderport said these cuts would not be an issue if the administration had the district’s finances straightened out.

    “I’m hard-pressed to understand how one of the richest property tax districts is in this position (of deficit spending),” Vanderport said.

    However, Shepperd said the administration is working to bring back employees that were cut due to reduction in force.

    “We are encouraging them to apply for vacancies whether that is due to retirement or someone leaving the district,” Shepperd said.

    Community and staff members still have the chance to voice their opinion about the cuts if they wish to do so. Shepperd said objections or suggestions can be made to the administration at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St.

    Vanderport said the union has a meeting with the administration on Thursday to negotiate the cuts that were made. He said the union hopes to make itself heard loud and clear.

    “If you say nothing, they hear nothing,” Vanderport said. “We tend to be very outspoken of our people here.”

    Wirth – who has worked in the district for 25 years – said she hopes the administration will take the experience of the employees into consideration.

    “My hope is that they would find the funding to reinstate our jobs to what they were before so we can serve the students and staff to what we always have,” Wirth said.