A state administrative law judge has until May 7 to decide whether the Rancho Santa School District’s plan to lay off 17 teachers is legal.
Judge Abraham Levy conducted a hearing Thursday, April 4, at R. Roger Rowe School in which he took testimony from the district’s superintendent as well as four teachers facing job loss. Roger Rowe, as it is commonly called, is a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus — the district’s only school.
Rather than hearing closing arguments from each side’s attorneys, Levy directed them to provide written briefs outlining their arguments and their views on issues that arose in the testimony.
The teachers contended their proposed layoffs starting in the coming school year failed to follow the legal parameters for dismissing employees for budgetary reasons.
Earlier this year, district officials issued layoff notifications to the full-time and part-time teachers, saying the cuts were necessary to counter an $806,000 budget deficit, due largely to declining student enrollment over the last 15 years. The school’s enrollment this year is about 600, down from a peak of nearly 850 in 2003-04, officials say.
Parents have protested against the layoffs, saying the district has a healthy reserve that could be used to offset the deficit without reducing the teaching staff.
Parents Marsi Hauenstein and Carol Lam appeared early at the hearing room and placed protest signs with messages such as “Shame on the Board,” “Leave the Teachers Alone,” and “Don’t Ruin Roger Rowe.”
Both parents said they specifically moved to the area because of the school’s high quality and specialized programs, some of which would be affected by the layoffs.
“That’s the reason I live here, not because the real estate is a great deal,” Hauenstein said.
She and Lam say the district should use its reserve or shrink administrative staff to absorb the deficit rather than axing teachers.
“They will not commit to any layoffs (in administration) and we have a completely bloated management here,” Hauenstein alleged.
Later, they were joined by more than 20 other teachers and parents for the hearing’s start, some wearing T-shirts that read “Teachers Make a Difference.”
The hearing was limited to the issue of whether the district followed the correct procedures in identifying who was eligible to be released, based on a “bumping” order that is at least partly contingent on seniority.
“I’m not here to second-guess the budgetary decisions,” Levy stressed, adding that the hearing had nothing to do with the competency of teachers targeted for layoffs.
In her opening remarks, teachers association attorney Richa Amar referred to the district’s budget situation, saying it was fiscally healthy, has a reserve at more than 40 percent of its operating budget and receives contributions of $1 million or so per year from a nonprofit foundation.
“So, it’s unclear why the district is taking this action and laying off about a quarter of its (teaching) staff,” she said.
In response to Amar’s questioning, District Superintendent Donna Tripi said the district retains a much higher reserve percentage-wise than other districts because of its small size and its susceptibility to fluctuations in property tax revenue.
One issue raised by some of the teachers was whether they were being penalized for having been in part-time positions since they had been there longer than other full-time employees not being laid off.
“Nowhere does the district or board policy say that part-time permanent teachers have zero seniority,” testified elementary school teacher Elena Colvin, who said she has worked at the school either part-time or full-time for 14 years.
English literacy teacher Andrea Grillot contended some with less qualifications and seniority than her were not issued layoff notices and her position is not being eliminated but is being shifted.
“It’s appears that my position is not truly being cut, but instead is being repackaged,” Grillot said.
Physical education teacher Julie Green said her position is being reduced from full-time to less than half that.
“If my position is indeed reduced (to part-time), I will not be able to stay at this school,” she said. “This will be devastating to my students and me.”
She said she had planned to remain at R. Roger Rowe until her retirement.
Judge Levy said that once he makes his decision in May, he will submit it to the district board, which can either accept or reject his determination.