District 161 considers temporary staff reduction in wake of remote learning changes

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District 161 considers temporary staff reduction in wake of remote learning changes

September 16, 2020 - 21:12
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While Flossmoor School District 161 officials are hoping to exhaust all options, remote learning may move the board to make a decision on staff reductions.

Superintendent Dana Smith brought the discussion item to the table during the Monday, Sept. 14, board meeting. Smith said he had no formal recommendation for the board, he simply wanted to seek the “board’s appetite” for possible action. The superintendent estimated the district could see a monthly savings that “conservatively” could be $40,000, depending on the positions reduced.

He said the topic is sensitive because it involves jobs, but certain positions only have work to do when students are in session. The decision to revert to all-remote learning this fall has a “domino effect” that goes with it, Smith said. He suggested the board meet on Sept. 29 to consider its options.

The superintendent said he is looking at several positions. These include custodian positions, particularly those who work in the evening even though there are no afternoon or evening activities in the buildings; positions that have paraprofessional advisory duties; two in-house bus drivers; media paraprofessionals; and student support aides when “there aren’t the kids to support,” according to Smith. 

The proposed changes could impact roughly 20 employees, he said. 

Some employees simply do not or will not have daily responsibilities going forward, Smith indicated. And while administrators have tried to get creative to find other projects for those employees, that approach has its limits.

“At the end of the day, you run out of projects,” Smith said. “We have a mismatch between our needs on the staffing side and the amount of resources we have.”

While district officials discussed a budget shortfall of roughly $5 million for fiscal year 2021 in the budget, Smith insisted the cuts are not necessitated by that situation.

“It’s saving money for saving money’s sake, not because we’re about to go off a cliff,” he said.

A vote Sept. 29 would give staff the required 30 days' notice before any imminent changes could be implemented in November.

“If we are going to go down this path, we’re essentially deciding we’re not going to come back to school until January,” Smith added.

He noted there is a complicated timeline on the back end of a possible reduction, too. It requires at least three weeks notice on the return to school. People involved in the reduction would have the option to return to their positions, but if some find other jobs or choose not to return, the district would have to consider timing for the hiring process, he explained.

Board member David Linnear said he appreciated the efforts of administrators to bring this to the attention of the board.

“When the board made the (remote learning) decisions, we knew there were going to be ripples, that there were going to be dominoes that would fall,” Linnear said.

But board member Christina Vlietstra said she was uncomfortable having the conversation when parents are already struggling and the district has no idea what will happen next in the midst of a pandemic.

“I think for us to even broach this topic of doing this right now, when we really have no idea what the next 60 days or less could hold, I would not be in favor of doing anything of this sort,” she said. “We just don’t know.”

Vlietstra said she is holding out hope the district can reopen on at least a hybrid basis by January. She worried that taking action that would go into effect in November would only create more complications.

“Yes, every penny counts … but it’s very, very egregious for us to act in that way when, truthfully, we could have a solid four weeks of school left and then we have to rehire,” she said.

Board member Stephen Paredes said officials cannot simply overlook the possibility of saving where they can, though. He called it a “tough question” but one worth asking.

“It’s a worthy question of fiduciary responsibility,” Paredes said. “It’s not something I think we should ignore. … It’s a question we always have to explore.”

But Paredes said he had concerns about the proposal because there is typically a season for hiring in schools, and administrators and the board generally do not love the spot it puts them in when someone leaves a job outside of that window.

Board member Cameron Nelson said he would like to see the district look into the possibility of extending benefits to those that will be part of a reduction in force. But he argued the board is obligated to at least consider something that could save money — especially when the alternative is paying people who have no immediate job duties.

“We can’t say no to $40,000 a month in savings,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, we can’t retain people who aren’t working.”

Nelson said there is, however, a question of the worth of the move in relation to the downsides.

“It sounds like we’re only saving a month or two on a handful of personnel,” he said to Smith. “Do you still recommend that we do that?”

Smith said: “I cringe when I think about the families who would be affected,” but, he is not sure what to do with the employees if they stay on staff.

“We’re trying to figure out different ways to add value to the community and the district,” he said. “In some of those cases, we have run out of ideas. … So many of these positions, they are solely dependent upon students being there every day.”

Board President Michelle Hoereth said she wants more information before she would feel comfortable voting on a staff reduction Sept. 29. She said she would like to see survey data from the district included in that. She also wants to examine other options for utilizing district staff, and whether — if cuts are needed — the district could get away with cutting half or fewer of the proposed positions.

“I would like to see all efforts exhausted in terms of all other potential uses for staff before we decide to make cuts,” she said. “I would hate to make that decision too soon.”