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17 teachers laid off at Rowe, principal moved back to classroom

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The RSF School board voted in favor of layoffs at the May 9 meeting.

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board approved the layoffs of 17 teaching positions at R. Roger Rowe School in order to address a budget deficit and staffing levels that have not changed despite declining enrollment.

“To tell those we love, who have worked very hard for all of our children in our district, that they no longer have positions here is extremely difficult,” said board President Sarah Neal.

Neal said it has been an emotionally trying and upsetting process as the board makes the kind of layoff decisions that are being made in many districts throughout the country—she said she believed Superintendent Donna Tripi’s realignment recommendations are reasonable and in the best interest of the district and the children.

“I know that Roger Rowe has a bright future…I believe in our teachers and the professionalism of our teachers, many of whom are staying,” Neal said. “We may have finite financial resources but we have an abundance of talent. This is difficult, there will be some pain but we will survive this, we will thrive.”

The cuts include the elimination of the math coach and literacy coach, all literacy support staff, science teachers, art teacher, PE coach, librarian and a computer science teacher, a class that was just added in the fall to replace elementary school Spanish.

At the May 9 meeting, Tripi also announced major shifts in the school’s administration—current middle school Principal Garrett Corduan will now serve as the K-8 principal and K-5 principal Kim Pinkerton will move back into the classroom. At the meeting, the board also approved a new assistant principal position.

It is Tripi’s intention that the principal take on more of an instructional leadership role, replacing what had been provided by literacy and math coaches.

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Signs oppose the layoffs at Roger Rowe. Courtesy

The district additionally eliminated an accounting manager position and a fund manager position in the development office. The board also approved a salary freeze for classified and certificated employees on the director pay schedules for 2019-20, which includes the principal, technology director and chief business officer.

Final layoff notices will be sent to teachers on May 15. As veteran teachers Steve Riviere and Jennifer Burdis have requested full-year leaves without pay, Tripi said at least two of the seven laid off classroom teachers could receive temporary contracts to return.

Rowe teachers were not in attendance at the 9 a.m. meeting, which occurred during state testing. Parents who spoke during public comment said they felt the cuts were “drastic” and “reckless.” Signs of opposition posted in front of the school read “Don’t ruin Roger Rowe” and “Shame on the board.”

“I feel that a sledgehammer has been used to chop off our valuable teaching staff and remove a lot of programs,” said parent Rona Shapouri. “I recognize there are easy years and harder years, however, I’ve never witnessed a year such as this one that has such turmoil, discord, discouragement…I’m sad and disappointed that we’re at this point.”

Parent Jill Ruzich asked the board to pause and take a more “measured” approach, such as spreading the cuts out over two years.

“Of course the community wants a balanced budget and we recognize that cuts need to be made. But I don’t think any of us anticipated that it would lead to the layoffs of nearly 25 percent of the teaching staff and the reassignment of one of our highly respected principals,” said Ruzich. “Education is not a profit-loss enterprise but an investment in our children’s and our country’s future.”

Board member Kali Kim said that the district is facing a stark financial truth that has not been addressed in years.

“Reduction in staff is difficult. There are a lot of special people involved. However, we need to move forward as it is a prudent course of action. To make these changes successful it will take trust in the board, faith in Donna, buy-in from the parents and the ongoing great work from our teachers,” Kim said. “I truly believe we are on the correct, responsible path and these hard decisions will make our school better. My mission has always been to create, ensure and develop the best learning environment for our kids.”

With the reductions, the district will have a balanced budget moving forward according to Chief Business Officer Brad Johnson Without the cuts, the district was facing a deficit of $556,390 in the 2018-19 school year. The deficit was projected to grow to $845,159 in 2019-20 and $896,292 in 2020-21.

According to Johnson, the deficit increased since the budget adoption last year due to the hiring of a superintendent search firm, interim superintendent, interim principal and the new superintendent. In addition, they increased a teaching position for computer science, added a half-time paraprofessional, a custodial position and did not reduce a classified position that was scheduled to be reduced. Budget pressures include rising pension contributions, step and column salary increases, deferred maintenance and the increasing cost of special education which is only funded 40 percent by the state.

There will be a public hearing on the proposed budget at the board’s June 12 meeting and the board will adopt the budget on June 20.

The proposed cuts will allow the school to provide the same level of service but with more efficiency Tripi said. They will maintain a 20:1 ratio of students to teachers in every classroom, they will maintain literacy and math intervention for students using four full-time teachers, and they will continue to have enrichment programs on a weekly basis taught primarily by middle school specialists. All students will still have 100 minutes of PE taught by a certificated teacher.

While the librarian will still have a position at the school as a classroom teacher, the library will not be staffed by a certificated teacher but be part of a paraprofessional’s duty along with supervision of lunchtime and school arrival.

Tripi said that most schools do not have a certificated teacher in the library but parents have argued that is what makes Rowe’s library so special as Stacey Halboth provides a “safe haven” for all students as well as teaching public speaking.

“There is a difference between meeting a standard and driving exceptional achievement,” said parent Keisha Bell, who spoke about Halboth’s impact on her son’s accomplishments in public speaking and providing statistics about how students at schools with full-time librarians earn better test scores in reading and writing. “This role cannot be filled by paraprofessionals.”

Tripi noted that public speaking can be taught in the classroom and lunch clubs will continue, providing the social-emotional piece of library time.

Neal stated that layoffs are a very legal process, based on seniority and not on competency. As part of the layoff process, teachers were given the opportunity to contend their dismissals. Abraham Levy, an administrative law judge from the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, heard the cases of four teachers facing job loss on April 4.

The judge ruled in the district’s favor with respect to the layoffs except in the case of K-3 science teacher Elena Colvin. Colvin’s layoff notice will be rescinded and she will retain her position. A 3-5 grade science teacher is among those who have been laid off—Tripi has said a team model will be used for upper elementary science.

One parent asked if the district would consider expanding the school boundaries to generate more students and income. As Neal explained, that is not how the school is funded. Rancho Santa Fe is a basic aid district, funded primarily by property taxes—declining enrollment is not a factor in how the district receives the bulk of its funding.

According to Johnson, as the district has not decreased its associated costs with having fewer students, the cost per student goes up as the enrollment decreases. Many parents said they felt that they did not have enough opportunity to provide input or share ideas about the district’s situation and possible solutions.

Parent Marsi Hauenstein asked many times for the board to conduct a town hall meeting. She said at board meetings, parents were forced to “cram in their thoughts into three minutes,” when what they really wanted was a dialogue and answers to their questions like why programs such as ceramics and robotics were left intact and others like the library and health and nutrition were “thrown out the window”— “Nobody had a say in any of this,” Hauenstein said.

Bell echoed Hauenstein’s statement, saying she felt as though the board had no accountability to respond to their feedback.

“You feel like your decisions reflect the community’s input but we’re not seeing that. We need to see that you’re at least taking into consideration what we’re saying,” Bell said. “Meeting after meeting after meeting nothing changes…It feels like it’s futile, and we’re heartbroken.”

Neal said there have been many opportunities to provide input and apologized there hasn’t been a two-way dialogue—she said the board could not have a two-way town hall due to the highly legal constraints of a layoff process.

"Although the district has appreciated the input in support of particular teachers and provided several and various opportunities for it, it would not be appropriate or legal to host a town hall to discuss confidential personnel matters or individual staff members,” Neal said.

At the meeting, parent Jessica Corman said the process has unfortunately taken a toll and asked the leadership to now do whatever they can to unify the school.

“Get it back to being a family, make sure we can start to heal because I love this community, I love this school and it’s always been something that’s been such a strong characteristic of Roger Rowe. Right now it just feels very segregated and very separated and that needs to change,” Corman said, adding that teachers need to be on board in order to help move the school forward. “The teachers are a critical piece so I’m begging that we start reuniting and getting this school back to what it was and make it the best Roger Rowe it can be.”