Board urged to reconsider layoff process

/ 18 April 2012 / jennifer

Liala Helal, International Falls Journal, , April 18, 2012 –

Votes on teacher cuts postponed until May

The International Falls School Board on Monday postponed action on teacher layoffs to allow time to examine the criteria used to select cuts.

The items were tabled until the board’s next meeting in May. Several community members gave heated testimonies during the meeting’s open forum portion, and requested that the board reconsider the criteria and make decisions based on teacher results, instead of “personal opinion.”

Layoffs are determined by seniority for tenured faculty only according to teacher contracts, said Sue Karsnia, the district’s administrative assistant. All six teacher layoffs proposed are for non-tenured, probationary teachers.

“It leaves you with whatever criteria you decide; it is not governed by seniority,” Karsnia told The Journal.

The layoffs, by non-renewal of contracts, are proposed for Stephanie Davis, fourth-grade teacher at Falls Elementary School; Kim Kuffenkam, reading specialist at Falls Elementary; Terry Mason, Title I reading and math teacher at West End Elementary; Jonelle Mellstrom, kindergarten teacher at Falls Elementary; Beth Shermoen, fourth-grade teacher at Falls Elementary; and Darrell Schmidt, English teacher at Falls High School.

“I really think that as far as we’ve come as a district — we’ve worked hard — I think we have discovered a crack in our foundation that needs to be addressed this evening,” said Shawn Mason during the meeting’s open forum. Mason is a substitute paraprofessional for the district, parent of two student and also mayor of International Falls. “I know that we have to do some layoffs, I understand fiscal hardship and having to make tough decisions, I face that at the city level…but what I would like to encourage the board to do, is to think about how we do that.”

Mason said that at a time when the district is under state-mandated improvement plan for not meeting the federal guidelines of No Child Left Behind, layoffs should be decided through teacher performance and results.

“I have heard that Mrs. Shermoen has the highest test scores in the whole school district,” Mason said. “But I’m bewildered, I’m bewildered on how we measure outcomes…I would think that test results would be a primary component for analyzing which teachers get laid off.”

She added that not having a clear-cut policy or process for layoffs of non-tenured teachers is “a colossal disservice to our students and our taxpayers.”

Parent Bob Christianson told the board his youngest son had struggled until he was taught by Shermoen.

“We’ve seen (our oldest son) slip through the cracks, here and in Littlefork, and I don’t want to see it happen to my other kids,” Christianson said to the board. “I think it’s a big mistake in how they determine how they get rid of teachers. I feel it should go by how well a teacher does.”

Christianson also wanted answers from the school board on how the district’s budget got to this point.

“Why would the school board decide to hire a bunch of teachers one year, and lay some off the next — as far as budget goes, don’t you guys think of that stuff ahead of time?” he asked.

School Board member Mark Lassila made a motion to table the agenda items involving teacher cuts, giving the administration time to look into the criteria for the policy to layoff probationary teachers.

The teacher layoffs recommended were announced last week; the board approved last month to curb potential budget deficit for next school year by reducing staff and shifting programs. All layoffs and reductions in class sections are in response to the discovery of a potential $700,000 budget deficit for the 2012-13 school year.

Which teachers were recommended for layoff was partly determined by reductions in elementary class sections, also sparked by the potential budget deficit. Superintendent Jeff Peura told The Journal in early March that he would be meeting with Jerry Hilfer, principal of Falls Elementary and West End Elementary schools, and Tim Everson, Falls High School principal, to determine the best way to make the cuts in positions. The group made recommendations of specific positions and brought them to the board to consider at Monday’s meeting.

During Monday’s meeting, board chairman Stuart Nordquist explained to the public that “we didn’t have the money we thought we had.”

He said the board initially had to cut seven teachers, but through meeting with school administrators and district administrative staff, shifts in programs were able to bring the layoffs down to 2.86 full-time equivalency positions.

“We did not want to cut seven teachers and make it a complete blood bath,” Nordquist said. “We found out where cuts can be made that would have the least impact on our children. The board has tried to make it as painless as possible, but it’s going to be painful.”

With layoffs come reductions in class sections — bringing an increase in class sizes, he explained.

During open forum, FHS teacher and union president John Sandberg said teachers were concerned about how layoffs would affect class sizes.

“We’re concerned about the possible reduction and its educational repercussions, specifically in section sizes and class sizes,” Sandberg said about large class sizes in the younger students. “This is where the building blocks of education are learned.”

Nordquist began to outline the proposal the district has for the teachers’ union, Education Minnesota International Falls Local 331, to teach a 7-period day instead of six, partly to reduce class sizes.

“Our main effort is to try to get this flex schedule in, we’ve been running up against a brick wall,” explained board member Will Kostiuk, who is a member of the negotiating committee.

Nordquist continued highlighting the importance of having a 7-period day in the union contract, currently under mediation between the district and the teachers’ union.

“Tom Dooher, the Education Minnesota president says, ‘We always want to do what’s best for the kids,” Nordquist said. “I wish (the teachers) would start doing that.”

Parent Tammy Sullivan said, “I think that’s out of line, Stuart. It’s not that cut and dry.”

Board member Darrell Wagner ended the discussion by saying, “I don’t think we should be negotiating in front of the community here.”

Also tabled until next meeting was the presentation of the final budget and tentative budget for next school year, since action on the layoffs must be made before the final budgets will be known, Karsnia told The Journal.

Pool update

Giving the board an update on the high school swimming pool renovation were Troy Miller and Mark Kusnierek, representatives from TSP, the architectural firm managing the project. Miller announced that the bottom of the pool had been taken out and that concrete would be poured next week, followed by tiling and grouting.

“We’re on schedule and under budget,” Miller said to the board.

Nordquist requested the two send numbers of the cost and budget of the project, since they did not know off-hand how much under budget the project was so far.

The diving pool depth will also be changed from 10 feet to 12 feet to be in accordance with federal guidelines for school sports, Miller added.

“Everything else is going along as planned,” he said.

Release time

During public forum, Rev. Ted Clarke of 1st Baptist Church said “the majority of ministers in our community still favor at least 13 weeks” of religious release time at the Falls district.

“We believe that one hour per student per week does not put their education in jeopardy, therefore it is reasonable to request that a ‘release time’ student not miss critical subject material,” Clarke said.

At last month’s meeting, pastors from around the community spoke about a change in the district to 10 weeks of release time, and a shift to allow teachers to continue instruction while students who choose to go to religious instruction are gone.

“Although release time is in accordance with state law, we still consider it a privilege,” Clarke said, adding that “a well-rounded education includes this community-wide, long-standing tradition.”

Rev. Cory Rintala of Northwoods Bible Church in Ray presented to the board information from an online poll conducted by The Journal. Rintala said the poll, which asked the community to vote on what they think of religious release time, showed most people answered, “It’s good, my children go,” or “It’s a good thing.”

“So almost 90 percent say it’s a good thing,” he said, adding that the ministers would still like to meet with the board or school administrators to find a solution that works.

Other items

Other action during the meeting included ratifying the 2011-13 union contract between the district and the paraprofessional union, Educational Support Professionals Local 4798.

The board also approved entering into an agreement with Rainy River Community College for concurrent enrollment classes in welding, CADD (computer-aided drafting and design) and math for next school year. The board chose the concurrent enrollment option for calculus over offering a high school advanced placement calculus class.

West End Elementary School secretary Vicky Wickstrom was approved for layoff through an unrequested leave of absence effective June 10. By law, she has recall rights for two years following the layoff.

In personnel business, resignations due to retirement for the end of this school year were approved for Kathy Mattison, educational support professional; Marianne Trask, accounts payable/receivable district employee; and Hilfer.

The board accepted the resignation of elementary teacher Emilie Veith effective at the end of this school year.