Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gloomy Evening at School Board Meeting

HELENA-WEST HELENA -- The Board of Directors, six of them, for the Helena-West Helena School District met last night for public hearings. The weather was just horrible. It was thundering, lightening and flooding in tornado-like conditions on the outside of the building. Job losses through reductions in force were occurring on the inside of the building. Vehicles struggled to get past the building in the flooded roadway. Employees struggled to get out of the building with a job and current pay still in tact.

Several employees were considered as part of the ongoing reduction in force (RIF) process within the school district. According to sources, the district submitted an action plan to the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) in September of 2010. This plan has been approved by the ADE and is the measure by which the district is currently being gauged.

Part and parcel of the plan were 15 components. Two of those components were the Reduction In Force (RIF) Plan and a three percent (3%) salary cut across the board for the "remaining" employees. The district's RIF policy is listed on the district's website. We display part of the policy here for clarity in the discussion of the policy.

  • The School Board acknowledges its authority to conduct a reduction in force (RIF) when a decrease in enrollment or other reason(s) make such a reduction necessary or desirable. A RIF will be conducted when the need for a reduction in the work force exceeds the normal rate of attrition for that portion of the staff that is in excess of the needs of the district as determined by the superintendent. 

  • In effecting a reduction in force, the primary goals of the school district shall be: what is in the best interests of the students; to maintain accreditation in compliance with the Standards of Accreditation for Arkansas Public Schools and/or the North Central Association; and the needs of the district. A reduction in force will be implemented when the superintendent determines it is advisable to do so and shall be effected through non-renewal, termination, or both. Any reduction in force will be conducted by evaluating the needs and long- and short-term goals of the school district, and by examining the staffing of the district in each licensure area and/or, if applicable, specific grade levels. 

  • If a reduction in force becomes necessary in a licensure area and/or specific grade level(s), the teacher’s length of service in the district shall be the initial determining factor. The teacher with the most years of employment as a licensed teacher in the district as compared to other teachers in the same licensure area and/or specific grade level(s) shall prevail. Length of service in a non-certified position shall not count for the purpose of length of service for a licensed position. Total years of service to the district shall include non-continuous years of service. Working fewer than 120 days in a school year shall not constitute a year. 

  • In the event that two employees subject to a RIF have the same length of service, the employee with the highest number of points as determined by the schedule contained in this policy shall be retained. The teacher with the fewest points will be laid off first. In the event two or more employees have the same number of points, the teacher(s) shall be retained whose name(s) appear first in the board’s minutes of the date of hire. There is no right or implied right for any teacher to “bump” or displace any other teacher. 

The questions being put forth by the employees challenging the RIF are: is the RIF necessary and did the district substantially and properly comply with its own policy?

In many ways, these hearings are a test on the whether the administration has followed its own policy. Attorney Vandell Bland, School Board Attorney, has explained that the law has changed over the years and the district needs to only substantially comply with the rules. This is a drastic change from the former policy (state law) that required strict compliance with every element of the policy. Key in the difference is the fact that strict compliance meant that any error made by the board of directors or the administration was a fatal error. The result would be employees could be reinstated on a technicality. That, now, is no longer the case and as long as the decision-makers can keep it between first and third base, then they are safe, according to Attorney Bland.

We do not have the names of all of those who had hearings tonight. We do know, however, that Rev. Mack Anthony Williams, was unsuccessful in his bid to change the board's mind about being let go. Superintendent Willie Williams made the recommendation. A board mention stated "so moved." A separate board member called out "second." Then Board President Rev. Jarvis Smith called the roll. Christopher Franklin, dissented on each and every vote. Franklin voted against the RIF of each employee. The other members voted, generally, in favor of the superintendent's recommendation. Rayne Gordon did dissent on one employee's dismissal.

The three percent pay reduction was discussed in the hearing whereby four (4) elementary teachers, including Ms. Jasmine Davis, were considered. The discussion of the three percent pay cut was brought forth by State Representative Nancy Blount who has been an educator in the Lee County Area for more than 30 years. She appeared as an advocate on the part of the four (4) teachers being considered for RIF. She is an Arkansas Education Association (AEA) Representative for this area. Her presentation centered around the three percent pay cut and the savings that she believes that the district could and would attain through attrition . Blount asserted that the district will save and is on a course of saving approximately $1.5 million dollars through attrition. There is a significant number of people leaving the district by retiring or voluntary non-renewal of their contracts.

According to Blount, if her numbers are correct, then the district does not need to engage in the three percent across the board pay cut because such a cut will save about $330,000.00 while the district has already saved nearly four (4) times that sum through other means. Blount's position is that the district can afford, because of these savings, to pull back on the RIF altogether and focus on a more targeted approach to saving money while providing a high quality education to the children.

The board members in attendance last night were Rev. Jarvis Smith, Elder Kim Smith, Mr. Tommy Stephens, Mr. Kyle Miller, Mr. Rayne Gordon and Mr. Christopher Franklin. Mrs. Constance Davis Jarrett was not in attendance. The board will meet again on tomorrow, Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 6:00 p.m.

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