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RSF School District considers teacher layoffs

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A parent raises awareness about the special board meeting on Feb. 25.

In its efforts to close a budget deficit, the Rancho Santa Fe School District board will consider layoffs of a number of certificated employees.

Superintendent Donna Tripi made the recommendation to potentially eliminate all literacy teaching positions, three elementary school classroom positions, three middle school classroom positions, a math coach, PE coach, the librarian, and art, dance and computer science teachers. The cuts would represent 19 positions at R. Roger Rowe School.

At a special meeting held Feb. 25, many parents expressed shock and disappointment about the plan to potentially eliminate certain positions.

“By making the cuts you are suggesting, you are not just taking away jobs, you are taking away a culture and climate that’s unlike any other. The relationships and bonds these students have with these teachers is so incredibly special. They do so much more than just teach,” said parent Stacy Harris. “I ask you to figure out a way not to take away these positions and keep this extraordinary school extraordinary instead of ordinary.”

RSF School District Board President Sarah Neal said that while it is new for the RSF district, many districts routinely send layoff notices to certificated staff for the flexibility of budgeting. Per education code, teachers must be given notice that they will potentially be laid off by March 15. Final notices are issued on May 15.

“Since January 2 when I came here, I knew that we had a budget shortfall and that I would need to look at it carefully,” Tripi said.

Last year the board approved a budget with a $429,060 deficit and multi-year projections at the current staffing levels showed deficit spending of $670,000 and $717,000 over the next two years with the reserve fund decreasing year over year.The district’s enrollment has decreased over the last 10 years from a high of 804 students in 2006-07.

“Without the contribution from the foundation, we’re spending 15 to 20 percent over budget which is a crisis,” said board member Kali Kim. “Having said that, our primary objective with these changes that Donna is proposing isn’t balancing the budget. The focus is on consolidating and efficiency, which will make our programs more effective for all of our students.”

With her recommendations, Tripi said she “thoughtfully and carefully” looked at every avenue to make cuts: visiting classrooms, attending programs, meeting with administration and all grade level teams and departments and support teams.

“My aim was to make recommendations that keep the impact away from the students as much as possible, keep services in place that are important to our school community, and to continue to provide a high level of academic excellence that we currently have in the district,” Tripi said.

Tripi said she is continuing to review classified and central office positions—her recommendations on those positions will be made at a later date.

According to Tripi, the school will be able to provide the same level of service. They will maintain a 20:1 ratio of students to teachers in every classroom and said the reduction in classroom teachers is due to the lower enrollment. She said they will maintain literacy and math intervention for students through four full-time teachers and they will continue to have enrichment programs for all students on a weekly basis, however, they will be taught primarily by middle school specialists in the area of music, art, computer coding and drama.

All students will still have 100 minutes of PE taught by a certificated teacher and all middle school programs and electives remain in place—they only eliminated dance because there was low enrollment.

“The library will be open for student use but will not be staffed by a certificated person as most libraries are not,” Tripi said.

Neal said this is just the beginning of a “difficult” process and she gave direction to the superintendent to conduct outreach with the community and provide open forums before the final decisions are made.

“We have a responsibility to the community to deliver excellent education to all of our students and work within a balanced budget,” Neal said. “Everyone’s got their priorities. At the end of the day there’s going to be a teacher that we all love that, unfortunately, might not have a job here. When you have a budget where 92 percent is people and you are in a deficit, those cuts are going to have to be made.”

At the meeting, several parents commented on the lack of transparency as there was little notice of the special meeting or an explanation or reasoning for the potential cuts. While the meeting notice was posted on the website on Friday afternoon, a school newsletter went out over the weekend with no mention of the meeting. Some parents were not aware until they saw a parent standing in front of school during morning drop-off with a poster board letting others know about the meeting.

During public comment, parents spoke up for teachers that they were upset to see on the “chopping block”— the art teacher, the PE coach and the librarian who has created a safe place for children to go.

Parent Jessica Foreman spoke about how the literacy support team has changed her son’s world, coming up with a plan to help him in the classroom, improve his reading and become a more competent child.

“We’re at the school because of those resources,” she said.

One parent grew tearful in speaking about the potential loss of a support teacher who has helped her child with special needs.

Julie Buechler, chair of annual giving for the RSF Education Foundation, said while she understands there are budget challenges, the district also asks a lot of its parent population.

“I absolutely hate asking people for money but I do it because I feel that this school is the best possible place for our children to attend. Looking at this proposal, I don’t feel I can make that statement if this is approved,” Buechler said. “It’s hard for me to imagine with the scope and depth of the cuts, I don’t see how this doesn’t negatively impact what we offer here.”

The 9:15 a.m. time of the meeting meant that many teachers were unable to attend, however, some trickled in toward the end. Teacher Elaine Dolnack read a statement on behalf of the Rancho Santa Fe Teachers Association.

“There are difficult decisions to be made concerning the budget. Discontinuing 19 teaching positions and laying off teachers is a substantial amount of our staff,” Dolnack said. “It is essential that every aspect of our school from administration, front office to departments and programs be analyzed, not just teacher positions. By only focusing on teachers, this has created a climate of fear and concern.”

Parents asked why the teachers were being looked at before everything else. One parent said, “It wasn’t the teachers that mismanaged the budget.”

Neal said she did not want anyone to walk away from the meeting thinking that someone had mismanaged district funds –she also did not want to place blame on past boards or leadership.

“There are many, many budgetary pressures on all school districts right now, it’s not a matter of mismanagement per se,” Neal said.

During the board’s budget discussions last year, it was discussed how the district’s biggest budget pressure, like all California school districts, is coming from the district’s retirement system contribution rates that continue to rise.

“I’m not saying that better decisions couldn’t have been made or won’t be made in the future but there are some significant budgetary pressures that all districts are facing,” Neal said. “There are many districts in this situation, unfortunately.”

The budget is at the top of the board’s priorities list for the school year—in October the board set priorities to reduce the projected deficit for 2018-19 and approve a balanced 2019-20 budget. All five board members expressed full confidence in Tripi and support for the direction she is taking.

“I was a student here, my wife was a student here, I care deeply about this place and I’m committed to making the school as great a place as we can possibly make it,” said Vice President Tyler Seltzer. “I have great faith in Donna and faith in this board…I know it looks potentially jolting and maybe I’m foolishly optimistic, but I remain optimistic.”

Kim said that, as a board, she felt that they “dropped the ball” in being transparent and that they could’ve gotten more information out to parents regarding the new superintendent’s vision for the school.

“I’m going to push for discussions and open communication when we work through this process,” Kim said. “This is just the beginning of this process of balancing the budget.”