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Roy Carmichael teacher Tenaya Kooyman asked the PUSD school board, via Zoom videoconferencing on May 13, to reconsider its options before voting to approve Resolution 1577 targeting 106 classified employee positions due to an unanticipated and severe budget deficit related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Roni Java

‘With heavy hearts,’ school board approves layoffs related to COVID-19

By Roni Java

Special to Feather Publishing

The Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) board of trustees was forced into an early, difficult decision May 13 by devastating economic impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that stuck the U.S. in January and sent students home to begin distance learning in March.

School sites remain closed, teachers are modifying classes to carry out instruction online and district employees are making and delivering hundreds of free breakfast and lunch meals per week. Not least by any means, many other staffers are also adapting to continue serving students while meeting pandemic health guidelines.

The disruption and impact in Plumas County, both economically and socially, is profound, as it is nationwide.

A very difficult vote

Emotions were subdued during the videoconference meeting that required school board members, administrators and the public to log in from remote locations to testify and provide information.

Voting 4-0, the board adopted Resolution 1577 to eliminate portions or all of some classified employee positions amounting to just under 58 full-time equivalent positions for the upcoming school year.

School Board President Leslie Edlund led the discussion and vote with Trustees Traci Holt, Dave Keller and Dwight Pierson present online. Trustee Joleen Cline was unable to attend.

“This is a lot of positions and the board is well aware of the severity of this action,” Edlund said. “Some of these positions are retirements and resignations. Some are portions of a person’s job, so those people will still be employed, not that that makes this any better or any easier.”

The cuts take effect July 13 and impact up to 106 employees in jobs ranging from school nurses and library specialists to aides, coordinators, technicians and liaison spots.

The Education Code required adoption of the resolution in order to give 60 days’ notice to affected staffers that a lack of work and/or a lack of funds means some services must be eliminated for the academic year beginning in August.

Public input highlights worry

Addressing the school board during its public comment period at the virtual meeting, California State Employees Association (CSEA) Labor Representative Jeff Otter expressed strong concerns over the possibility of a layoff vote.

“This is a bloodbath we’re talking about,” Otter testified. “I don’t know how many of our communities in Plumas County are ready to absorb this; it seems unfair. There are financial difficulties coming, but we don’t know what those look like. So we want to avoid having our folks having the anxiety of losing their ability to pay their rent and feed their children. This is premature for our members.”

One other speaker testified while logged on, Tenaya Kooyman, a third-grade teacher at C. Roy Carmichael Elementary in Portola.

She said what struck her most was a need for all the stakeholders in the job cuts matter to work together and develop reasonable expectations as a way forward.

PUSD outlines fiscal realities

The County Office of Education leadership team provided a sobering outline of the district’s efforts to grapple with the COVID-19 budget deficit issues that have impacted all aspects of school operations and are expected to continue to do so into the fall and beyond.

(See related story on PUSD’s new advisory committees formed to address and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on school operations, families and the district budget.)

California is experiencing an historic economic impact from the pandemic that has plunged the state from a $21 billion surplus in January to this month’s $54 billion deficit and school financing will feel the drain, too.

Lisa Cavin, Deputy Superintendent for Business Services, discussed the district’s financial picture and said PUSD is planning for multiple scenarios with the budget and what next year will look like on local campuses. The state is expected to make additional budget adjustments in August, after tax revenues are known in July.

Superintendent Terry Oestreich said, “As a result of our budget discussions, we don’t know what the return to school will look like in the fall, nor are we certain August 24th will be the first day of school. I deeply regret the additional anxiety these conversations create for everyone while going through a pandemic.”

She also said the district hopes and plans to identify multiple scenarios of what the fall could look like and explained principals, directors, supervisors and union leadership had discussed PUSD’s considerations with multiple staff members in preparation for the May 13 meeting.

Oestreich added the district is having conversations with certificated employees who may want to consider their options specific to (current) vacant positions. She said state leaders are advising PUSD to not fill vacant positions (with new employees), based on the district’s budget status.

“We know this is not easy for anyone as none of us would have ever imagined this conversation taking place two months ago,” the superintendent said quietly. “The resolution presented this evening identifies positions of our friends, our colleagues and, in many cases, our family members. We know this is difficult for everyone.”

Trustees’ final thoughts

The unanimous votes to adopt Resolution 1577 spelling out the staffing cuts came at the very end of the evening.

“This administration and this board have worked very hard to maintain a great education for our students and a great education program within our budget through lots of ups and downs over the years,” said Board President Edlund. “So now, having to make these decisions involving our colleagues and our friends is agonizing for all of us, and it’s certainly never where we expected to be. We’re trying to plan for something we’ve never experienced before. And we’ve been struggling with this since the COVID pandemic began. As we fine-tune what next year looks like, I’m optimistic that new opportunities will arise for this district, for education and for our employees.”

Trustee Traci Holt, clerk of the board, said she wanted to echo Edlund’s comments.

“I just want to (acknowledge) this is not an easy decision,” Holt added. “We must not forget that our students are not in a physical classroom, schools are closed, our students are learning at home. Our students are not prepared for virtual learning and neither are our parents. The location of school has not only shifted, education has been interrupted. These are challenging times; they are unprecedented. These are difficult decisions for us and I agree there are going to be some opportunities for us in the future. I just hope we can move forward with grace and compassion as we try to figure out what education looks like for us, what learning looks like for us in the future.”

Trustee Dwight Pierson has a long and dedicated history in public schooling.

“I started teaching in 1968,” he said. “I loved every day that I was in education from the time I was a teacher, a counselor and an administrator. The beauty of it was, it didn’t change that much. We had classes, kids came to school. We had events and activities and socialization. But this COVID-19 has just thrown us into a whole new scheme with lots of uncertainty. I applaud my fellow board members. We’ve lamented over this for the last two months, over what our future is going to look like. I’m optimistic, too, that we’re going to meet the challenges and provide opportunities for students to learn. But it’s a whole new path. We’re going to have to trust and have faith that this is going to work and work together to do what’s best for our kids.”

Trustee Dave Keller summed up his thoughts this way.

“We certainly do not take any of this lightly,” Keller said. “In fact, we all have heavy hearts about this. We know all the lives it will impact, not just now but for years to come. And I think our objective is to continue to focus on the education of our students and provide the best education possible for everyone.”






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